Last night, we said goodbye to the 930.
For the last six years, 930 Mary Street has been the home base of Sojourn Community Church, the location of our Midtown Campus, and the 930 Arts Center. Next Sunday, Midtown’s services move to the old St. Vincent’s Cathedral, just two blocks away. But it’s a whole world away in terms of the experience, and while no one is more excited about the new facility than me, there is a sad nostalgia for the 930 as we exit.
Finding the 930
When we first began looking for a building, seven years ago, the 930 wasn’t on our radar. Instead, we were fixated on a delapidated warehouse on the corner of Swan and Breckenridge, which once housed the Swan Street Antique Mall. It was an empty shell with no parking, a bad roof, and the curb appeal of a bomb shelter… after the bombing raid.
But we knew we needed to move. We needed a location big enough to house the 300-400 people who were gathering in our services, and we needed to be able to hold services on Sunday mornings. The other options, at that point were abysmal: a storefront on Bardstown Road that would barely hold our current attendees, Swan Street, and a handful of other options that would have taken us far away from the neighborhoods we were targeting (Germantown and the Highlands).
Then, one early evening, my phone rang. It was Sean Fawbush, a longtime Sojourn member who lived in Germantown. His wife, Tobey, had been out on a bike ride and noticed that the old Isaac Shelby Elementary School was going to be sold at auction.
The timing of the call was perfect. We had planned, as early as the next day, to place a bid on the festering building on Swan Street. The auction was a month away for Isaac Shelby, so we thought it was worth the wait to try and see if we could get it at a reasonable price.
The building was built in two sections. The first is a tall, red-brick schoolhouse, built around the turn of the century. In the sixties, the school expanded, with a long, low slung three-story concrete building attaching itself to the old school. They built a new facade and staircase onto the old building, and did their best to match the bricks. But the two spaces were incredibly distinct. The old building had creeky wood floors, lots of big windows, and tall cielings. The new side had hideous terrazo floors and concrete block walls. But it was big, and it had two large parking lots.
On a bright October morning, we went to the auction, held in the hallway on the first floor of the old building (which is now our green-painted prayer room, just outside the auditorium). The auction was unremarkable in every way. Only two parties were bidding – our contingency from Sojourn, a silent, brooding character who leaned against the wall and spent most of the morning looking at the floors, and two men who ran the auction. They were dissapointed in the lackluster turnout.
Daniel and I paced at the end of the hallway while the price creeped up between the brooding guy and the two men who had agreed, up to a certain price, to purchase the building for us. When the auction ended, and we won, we jumped up and down like kids. At last, after years of hauling equipment, setting up sound gear, and wrangling tensions with the churches who’d generously shared space with us, we had a home of our own.
Making It Our Home
The year that followed, raising money, renovating the space, and moving in, is a big, big blur.
We moved the offices early in the process, occupying the old administrative offices on the first floor. I had the nurses office, a pale blue room that lacked windows but had a private bathroom (this is now the check-in for the nursery). They say lack of sun makes you sick. I believe it after those months in that cave.
But I remember many good things happening in that office. I remember the team that led the capital campaign meeting there – Nathan Quillo, Kyle Noltemeyer, Lorie King, and others. I remember Phillip Miller and Michael Morgan auditioning for Sojourn Music in that room. I remember doing Nathan Ivey’s and Bryce Butler’s member interviews in that room.
It was nearly summer before the actual construction work began. We hired David Heyne and QK4 to provide some architectural consulting on the space, and to this day, it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.
But instead of hiring a general contractor to do the work, we chose to do it ourselves. This was perhaps not the best decision I ever made. We thought we could carve up the work between volunteer labor and a handful of subcontractors, saving a lot of money in the process.
The 930 exists because of two things: Sojourn volunteers who scrubbed, painted, cleaned, and hauled all manner of trash and rubble out of that space, and a group of Shelbyville farm boys, hired at the recommendation of a friend, who could do almost anything. They knocked down walls mercilessly, built doors and stairs, stripped cielings, and just plain worked until the building began to look something like the drawings we’d recieved from David and QK4. I’ve forgotten their foreman’s name, but I’ll never forget his presence. He was tall, maybe 6’3, and as wide as he was tall, with shoulders and biceps like a rhino. He seemed perpetually armed with a Marlboro and a Sawzall. No matter what you asked him today, he’d say, “We’ll get’er.”
The other worker I remember vividly was the flooring guy. He looked like a dwarf from the Lord of the Rings, only he wasn’t short. He was just bearded and gnarled-faced. He moved about the building with a big, yellow DeWalt radio that seemed to only pick up radio stations that played Metallica. We affectionately called him Gimli.
Charlie Lucas ran a painting company at the time, and we hired them to paint most of the building. Actually – we’d hired another company to paint the second-floor offices, but didn’t bring them back after their workmen crapped in a trashcan in the bathroom. The stench was overwhelming. By that time, Michael Morgan was interning, and when this calamity befell us, he revealed his superpower: he has no sense of smell. He boldly dispatched with the fouled trash can with literally no sense of the horrors that were endured.
Anyway, Charlie and Gimli, the flooring dwarf, had to coordinate their schedules. Often the flooring and painting were happening at the same time and in the same spaces, so they had to be careful not to end up on top of one another. Charlie told me that no matter the situation, no matter the problem, the flooring guy would nod, shrug his shoulders, and say, “We’ll work together on it.”
“You know what I bet,” Charlie said, “when he was in elementary school, I bet he got one of those stickers that said, ‘works well with others.’”
Less Than Ideal Conditions
As the auditorium took shape, I began bringing in people to look at options for sound and video. I sent the drawings off to a couple of acousticians, engineers who could tell us how to treat the walls and aim the speakers for optimal sound. We had dreams of opening a music venue and making the space sound great.
The feedback wasn’t positive. Unless we were willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars, the thing was going to be a sonic disaster. Too many parallel walls. Too low ceilings. Too small stage. “The flutter echoes will make your head spin,” one engineer told me. “The standing waves will be nauseating,” said another.
So we pressed on. I brought in Tim Underwood, a friend and sound geek for many years, and together he and I devised the best plan we could afford. Tim single-handedly installed our speakers and video screens, swearing that we could hang a Buick from the U-Strut bracing in the ceiling. We bought fluffy chairs to try to absorb the sound, and we tried not to aim any speakers at the back walls. Instead of an audiophiles paradise (which we’d dreamed of), we had the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of auditoriums. A less-than-perfect labor of love.
In the years since, I’ve seen some incredible shows in that room: Grizzly Bear, Yo La Tengo, Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken, Ingrid Michaelson, Shellac, Over the Rhine, Bill Mallonee, and many more.
My two favorite shows involved two of my musical heroes. Joe Henry played a solo show, jumping between his old black Gibson parlor guitars and the beat-up, squeaky, and out-of-tune schoolroom piano we kept around. He was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. His songs are always haunting. I think he’s one of the best lyricists around, and hearing the tunes so simple, so stripped, really highlighted the dreamy, dark world he imagines.
The other favorite was Bill Frisell. Bill arrived early the day of his show, and his audio engineer / road manager had called to arrange for Bill to setup in the morning and take some time to practice. He got out of the car and shyly introduced himself, and I said, “Actually, Bill, we’ve been MySpace friends for some time now.” He turned to his audio engineer/ road manager Claudia and said, “I have a MySpace page?”
That afternoon, Claudia dialed in the sound system and Bill practiced. I sat in the back row under the auspices of being “on call” in case they needed anything, but really, I was just ecstatic to sit and watch a virtuoso at work.
That night at the show, Claudia ran the sound at an astonishingly low level. The whole room sat on the edge of their seats, holding their breath as Bill created Americana soundscapes as wide as the land they evoked. He came back a few years later with a trio – and they were amazing – but the solo performance remains one of my favorite shows of all time.
Over the Rhine played a great show there too. Their sound engineer was a 300 pound road dog, a bulky figure who’s gyrations and cheers from the soundboard revealed a man who, after years on the road with the likes of Emmylou Harris, was still in love with music. His performance was as fun to watch as the band’s. As Linford, Karin and their rhythm section played through rowdy and bawdy versions of their songs, he’d stomp his foot, hoot, clap his hands, and yell, “whooeyy, they’re havin’ a good time, boys.”
The Memories That Will Last Forever
But more than anything, I’ll remember the Sojourn gatherings. I’ll remember a member meeting where, with tears streaming down his face, Pastor Robert Cheong taught the members about church discipline, taught them about excluding a member and treating him like an unbeliever. I’ll remember a couple of years later when he once again reminded them of that lesson, then brought forward the member who’d been removed, and restored him to fellowship.
I’ll remember it as the place we first sang so many Sojourn songs: Absent from Flesh, In the Shadow of the Glorious Cross, Warrior, We Are Changed, Death Has Lost Its Sting, Lead Us Back, and many others. I’ll remember it as the place we recorded Brooks Ritter’s “The War EP.”
I’ll remember it as the place where my children were dedicated. I’ll remember pastoring and attending countless weddings.
I’ll remember a thousand discussions of the best way to serve communion in that weird landscape. I’ll remember ten thousand discussions about sound levels.
I’ll remember the Sundays when the singing of the audience blew us off the stage, when I’d look over at Brooks Ritter or Marty Stam and just shake my head, feeling like we didn’t even need to be there.
I’ll remember sermon after sermon that pointed me to Christ, and I’ll remember dozens of testimonies: med students and drug dealers, hipsters and strippers, recovering pharisees and hopeless wanderers, all whose lives were dramatically transformed by Jesus.
And it all happened in that Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of an auditorium.
There’s an intimacy and an immediacy in that room. Because the cielings are low, because the back walls are so close, because it’s wide and in the half-round, everyone is only a few rows from the front. That will definitely change when we go to St. Vincent’s, and I believe that it will be different. Not better. Not worse. Just different. A categorically different sonic and visual experience.
I know it will be beautiful, and I believe wholeheartedly that God has great things in store for us at St. Vincents. But I also know that these misty-eyed memories will only become more cherished as the years go on, as those babies I dedicated grow up and as those marriages I witnessed grow old.
So thank you, Jesus, for the 930 Arts Center.