As some of you may know, I have a degree in Religious Studies, not that it matters and not that it commands much respect. For better or worse, we live in a country in which people can essentially label themselves as Reverends or gurus or spiritual teachers without having any formal education in the discourse of religion, let alone a bachelor’s degree in the subject.
And to me, that is okay.
Regardless of your faith, religion is usually considered to be something one can only gain and appreciate through ritual and personal experience, something that one can only truly comprehend after extensive practice, study, and commitment. Sure, you can be born and immediately confirmed into a religion, without ever having the opportunity to make your own independent decision, but either way, considering we are all free-thinking, sentient beings, I believe religion is something you must grow to understand. And I’m speaking as someone who was raised a Methodist and baptized before I could talk- which, personally, I believe to be a meaningful ritualistic acknowledgment and gesture. If your faith instructs that you will be damned to eternal hell unless you participate in the ritual of baptism, among other things, it makes sense that we should baptize babies, at least as an insurance policy. And I’m not attempting to sound crass or flippant; it is a powerful ritual.
At nearly 106 years old, Shiloh Baptist Church, located on the corner of Washington and 10th Street in Downtown Alexandria, is one of the oldest structures in the city. Remember, of course, Alexandria was burned to the ground during the Civil War, and ever since then, as our local historic preservationists like to say, we’ve suffered from a “Tear It Down” mentality.
According to one study of Downtown properties, at one point, Alexandria had lost nearly 90% of her historic buildings, due, in no small part, to the construction of Interstate 49. And as Dale Genius at the Louisiana History Museum can attest, many of the buildings we demolished were architectural gems. In what was perhaps a misguided attempt at embracing modernization, we seemed to prefer demolition instead of renovation. When you look at the photos of what we have lost, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of frustration.
Although it may be understated and simplistic, I’ve always liked Shiloh Baptist Church. Notably, if you’re driving north on Interstate 49 and decide to exit into Downtown Alexandria, Shiloh Baptist Church is one of the first things you’ll see; it’s almost like a gateway monument, hugging the street corner, a plain yet eye-catching representation of Alexandria’s history and its architectural themes.
For over 100 years, Shiloh was one of the oldest African-American churches in Central Louisiana. The congregation was actually organized in June of 1882, over twenty years before the current church was built. Today, the building remains vacant and in need of major renovations. After being threatened with demolition earlier this year, thankfully, it was spared from the wrecking ball after a handful of local preservationists took action. There is still much work to do, but like I asked about the dairy barn, what do you think Shiloh could or should become?