Part Two: Shiloh
Four years ago, the building that formerly housed Shiloh Baptist Church, one of the oldest African-American congregations in Central Louisiana, was threatened by the prospect of demolition, and shortly thereafter, it was named one of the top ten most endangered properties in the State by the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation.
It’s not only a good-looking, historic building; it’s also the very first thing one sees when exiting northbound from Interstate 49 and into Downtown Alexandria.
One afternoon, I called my grandmother at home to pitch the Shiloh project to her. I told her I wanted to find an innovative re-use plan, a plan that did not involve the City government or any type of direct, taxpayer-funded subsidization. She listened to everything I had to say and then replied (paraphrasing here and throughout), “Let me think about it, angel, and I’ll call you back.” (I’m not being hyperbolic; she routinely referred to all thirteen of her grandchildren as “angel,” something I most assuredly am not).
A few days later, she called me back with an idea.
“We should convert the church into a music conservatory that celebrates Negro spirituals,” she said. “Many of those songs are becoming extinct. Many of them were only passed on through oral tradition.”
“The government could never fund anything like that, Mawmaw,” I said. “We can’t buy a church and turn it into a religious music conservatory.”
Of course, my grandmother already understood all of that; she was almost always four steps ahead of me. “No,” she said, “our local churches must share this mission together. If it is to become a conservatory, it must be donated, not sold, to an ecumenical non-profit.”
Although she was always a loyal member of the United Methodist Church, my grandmother believed in the powerful effects of ecumenicalism.
It was possible, she thought, to save an historic house of worship, while, at the same time, preserving a critically important part of American history, a part of our history that was also threatened to be forgotten. It hasn’t happened yet, and it may not happen any time soon. Brilliant ideas are often the most challenging to realize and appreciate, and maybe I’m biased: But her idea was brilliant.