Many of you who are members of First Baptist have been praying today for the public hearing re the inclusion of our building in a proposed extension to the Riverside-West End Historic District. Thank you so much. God is great and God is good.
Here is the statement that I submitted as testimony during the hearing today. Please don’t stop praying. There were likely many present who do not know Christ. Let us pray that he would show the same mercy to them as he has for us.
Statement of Matthew C. Hoskinson, Pastor,
The First Baptist Church in the City of New York,
to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission
March 22, 2011
Mr. Chairman, Commissioners, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for the opportunity to address you today. My name is Matthew Hoskinson, and I serve as the pastor of the First Baptist Church in the City of New York. Our congregation has a rich history in the city. We were chartered in 1745. In the early days our church met in lower Manhattan before relocating to Midtown on Park Avenue in the mid-nineteenth century. The congregation outgrew that space after the Civil War and decided to move to our present location at the corner of 79th and Broadway. The foundation was laid in 1891, and our church completed its move shortly thereafter.
For the past 120 years then First Baptist Church has been a fixture on the Upper West Side—and we are grateful for this heritage. To this day many of our members live in the neighborhood and walk to our worship services. We take seriously the commission from our Lord to be salt and light in the community in which he has placed us. We exist in the Upper West Side for the good of the Upper West Side and are glad to serve our neighborhood by spreading the hope we have found in Christ.
It may then surprise you that, when informed of the proposal to include our building in a historic preservation district, our members passed a resolution to state formally our opposition. You may be further surprised to know that the vote was unanimous. If you’ve ever attended a church business meeting, you know how unusual that is!
Before I give the reasons for our opposition, please allow me to clarify. We do not oppose landmarking because we have plans to raze our building. Its symbolism is rich, as is evidenced by the most distinguishing feature of our building, the two towers, which are a visible testimony that the Risen Christ (symbolized by the completed tower) is building his church around the world (symbolized by the incomplete tower). Furthermore, we do not oppose landmarking because we care little about our neighbors. Our Lord told us that, after loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, the most important thing is to love our neighbors as ourselves. We understand that some may wish to have our building landmarked so that we are hindered from doing something that may impact them negatively. I assure you, any decision we make with our building will take seriously our relationship with our neighbors. Our desire is to show the same kind of love and mercy to our neighbors that Jesus has shown to us.
We have three reasons for opposing our inclusion in this district, two financial and one philosophical:
- The landmarking of our building would cause the loss of tens of millions of dollars in the value of our property. We want to be good stewards of what our Lord has given to us. For the past century and a quarter we have built and maintained our facility at our own expense. We believe that the decision to landmark would have negative ramifications on our church’s financial health.
- Because of the need to hire professionals to obtain Commission approval and the need to follow Commission guidance as to how exterior work could be carried out, any maintenance or renovations that we would desire to make would take much more time and be substantially more expensive. We are not a wealthy congregation. While our desire would be to remain in the Upper West Side, we do not have large endowments so the current expenses of our church are shouldered by our members and regular attenders. We believe that the decision to landmark would put an enormous and unnecessary financial burden on our congregation.
- The third reason is the most important. We believe that landmarking impinges on our First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion. Our building is the hub of our ministry. As we prayerfully contemplate how we may best minister to the community, we desire to retain our freedom to put the needs of our Christian ministry ahead of the appearance of the building. If we want to begin a homeless ministry, a women’s shelter, or an educational service, it may become necessary to make alterations in order to fulfill our ministry initiatives. We believe that the decision to landmark would limit the free exercise of our religion in at least two ways: (a) in carrying out its responsibilities the Commission might sit in review of our determination that a change is needed for ministry reasons and (b) the Commission might refuse permission to do something that we want to do to enhance our ministry. We desire to retain the freedom to use our building as the Lord directs. It is not possible to separate form from function.
We therefore humbly submit our formal opposition to the inclusion of our building in this historic district. We realize that this is likely an unpopular decision, yet we believe it is the right decision for the future of our church and our service to the community.
In conclusion we affirm that a building is not what makes us a church. Before we are anything else, we are gospel people, people who are being transformed by the good news that Jesus lived and died for us. We know that “the message of the cross is foolishness,” but “to us it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1.18). We do not need a building or money or even our First Amendment rights for us to be people who love God and neighbor. As long as he has stationed us at the corner of 79th and Broadway, we are committed to being people of the gospel in the Upper West Side for the Upper West Side.
Matthew C. Hoskinson, Pastor