First it was the hippies and gay people revitalizing the Highlands’ and Crescent Hill’s fading mansions and bugalows circa-1970.
Then, beginning five years ago, it was the LEEDs-loving Hollands transforming East Market Street into the NuLu restaurant, retail and arts district.
Now, is evangelical Christianity about to become a force in revitalizing Louisville’s urban neighborhoods?
In the early days, different religious groups gave Louisville neighborhoods their identities, from the heavily German Catholic Germantown and St. Matthews to the Jewish shtetl on Preston Street next to what is now the Nucleus construction site.
In the 21st Century, the transformation of the former St. Vincent de Paul Church on Shelby Street in Germantown/Shelby Park into the future Sojourn Community Church headquarters is part of a epochal change in Louisville’s urban core.
The conversion, so to speak, of a former Roman Catholic church into an evangelical church is more than a construction project, though it certainly is that.
Sojourn is asking its creative-class congregation – technology execs, artists, musicians and entrepreneurs – to become part of the surrounding neighborhood.
Which may accelerate the transformation of the still-dicey Shelby Park/Germantown/Smoketown area east of downtown from shabby to chic.
The renovation of the St. Vincent De Paul facility, valued at about $3.5 million, transforms the 1870s-era cathedral into a community complex, said Leo Post, owner and president of A. L. Post Inc., the Louisville-based general contractor for the project.
The new Sojourn Midtown facility is scheduled to “launch” in August, said Jenny Holzer, Sojourn spokeswoman. Sojourn Midtown currently is at 830 Mary St., just east of the new complex.
What’s going on at and around Sojourn isn’t gentrification. The idea isn’t for middle-class urban pioneers to displace poorer residents. It’s to coexist, said Aaron Marshall, a Sojourn member and partner with Jason Falls in Social Media Explorer, a Louisville-based consultancy.
Marshall, his wife Nicole and son Zurich live in Smoketown, where Aaron Marshall says there is petty crime and other issues.
“It’s a hard thing to ask a young family to do this … to move into an iffy neighborhood. But we’ve been given everything in Christ and have nothing to lose. That can only happen with someone who believes they’ve been given everything.”
Marshall emphasizes that we’re not just talking about a bunch of naive do-gooders here.
“There’s not enough motivation in do-gooderism. Everyone knows eventually that wears out.
“It’s about revitalization; getting to know neighbors. Serving neighbors,” he said. “We seek to be an improving force, not that we’re just ‘moving in.’ ”
“I think that’s the heart of it.”
Post says his firm handles a lot of difficult, niche projects including the new Sons of the American Revolution headquarters on West Main Street downtown.
At Sojourn Midtown, A.L. Post oversaw an elaborate, three-structure project that added a three-story, 12,000-square-foot, stone-and-steel contemporary building next to a renovated, 8,000-square-foot 19th Century rectory A.L. Post converted into offices.
The addition will house an art gallery on the first floor, children’s classrooms on the second floor and staff offices on the third.
Restoring masonry work and marble in the original cathedral was perhaps his biggest challenge, along with getting workers up to the 50-foot vaulted ceilings, Post said. (“Happily, I can now say that went … without any injuries.”)
But it was a comparable task to convert the 12,000-square-foot sanctuary into “something that’s almost a concert venue,” Post said.
Sojourn uses contemporary music in its services and does in-house music production, Holzer said.
“There was a lot of emphasis on acoustics,” Post said. “A lot of thought went into the sound system.”
Sojourn is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Conference, but pointedly does not include “Baptist” in its name, Holzer said. “A big part of that is, we want people to feel the openness of the church, and that it’s not just Baptist doctrine.”
“Sojourn has a very real, stripped down, no gimmicks approach to presenting how the truth of how God’s word speaks into present day realities,” she added. “We are a church that’s about clearly presenting God’s story in a way that is both real and applicable.
“We’re blunt about sin, but we’re also blunt about grace.”
Sojourn takes theology “really seriously,” Marshall said, “and when you take the entire Gospel, you discover God cares about beauty, art, creativity and productivity.” It’s a message that gets serious traction with 25–to-30-year-olds who are more creative and “whimsical,” he added.
About 450 people per week attend services at the current mid-town facility out of the 1,300 total attendance, Holzer said.
Sojourn has three other congregations in other parts of the metroplex – Jeffersontown, the Westport Road area and New Albany.
Marshall said the new Sojourn facility is another wave of revitalization that already has brought new restaurants such as Eiderdown to Germantown, making the area more attractive to hipsters.
“Rents are cheap. New restaurants serve higher quality food. (Sojourn) is just another thing driving growth,” he said.
Post said he worked in the Germantown/Smoketown area before he started A.L. Post 10 years ago, “and I saw this area really drop off.
“I think this is something that could really turn things around.”