2640 Space Is the Place
Charles Village's Longstanding Progressive Church Joins Forces With A Newer Generation Of Cultural Activists
Unlike many of the city's Victorian churches that tower over entire blocks, St. John's United Methodist Church is modest. Poised on the corner of St. Paul and 27th streets in Charles Village, the stone structure has a homey, tranquil air even as a punk band's clatter drifts from within. Most days you're as likely to see anti-war veterans, tai chi practitioners, and underground filmmakers as worshippers perched on the steps outside, cooling off from heated gatherings.
These days St. John's is also known by another name: 2640 Space. Initially a collaboration between the church and Red Emma's anarchist bookstore and café, 2640 has grown into a 6-month-old collective drawing fresh blood from outside both groups.
While Red Emma's had often used St. John's facilities in the past, 2640 only emerged after a phone call last September between Red Emma's member Kate Khatib, an experienced activist at the core of the project, and St. John's pastor Drew Phoenix. At the time, Red Emma's was contemplating a move or opening a satellite location. The seeds of this conversation revived the church's long history of serving as a community space and fostered a forum for politicized arts and culture--such as the Mid-Atlantic Radical Book Fair, back for a second year this weekend, featuring speakers such as award-winning poet and documentary filmmaker M.K. Asante Jr., Iraq war correspondent Dahr Jamail, black feminist author Joy James, and local parenting zinester China Martens ("The Future Generation," Feature, April 25), along with an independent political film festival.
While the pairing of a Christian congregation and an anarchist collective may sound unlikely, Phoenix speaks warmly of the benefits. With a ready smile, casual manner, and speech peppered by youthful slang, Phoenix is far from the stereotypical stuffy man of God. He comes across more interested in listening to Khatib describe the project than talking himself, let alone pontificating, during the interview in an intimate sitting room just outside his office. When he does speak up, his replies are concise and thoughtful, lending him a gentle authority. Phoenix has been with the church for five years, following a series of ill-suited pastors, including one whose homophobia clashed with the congregation's LGBT advocacy. He credits 2640 in revitalizing St John's.
"This congregation had been in a kind of dispirited place for a couple decades," Phoenix says. "I had just begun rebuilding the numbers, and then the collective comes along and there's all this energy. Our numbers have gone up dramatically. People are like, `Wow, cool. A radically political group involved here.' They want to be part of it."
Such enthusiasm is characteristic of St. John's activist history. Founded in 1828, the congregation broke off from the main Methodist church several times around the turn of the 20th century, rather than submit to a hierarchy of bishops. "We believe in laypeople leading everything," Phoenix says. "St. John's is the mother church of a form of Methodism that is very anti-hierarchical. It is one of the reasons that we partner so well with Red Emma's. We are not Christian anarchists, but we are pretty close."
St. John's has long intersected with the city's radical community, serving as a hub for activists during the 1960s and '70s. In the '80s, St. John's housed Salvadoran refugees through the sanctuary movement. Currently the church is partnered with health and education initiatives such as Casa Baltimore/Limay in Nicaragua and Slums Information Development and Resource Centres in Kenya, while working in solidarity with peace groups such as Women in Black and the nearby Homewood Friends congregation.
In light of this history, Red Emma's turned to the church when looking for a venue for larger events. "We didn't have to pull in favors or come up with thousands of dollars," says Red Emma's collective member John Duda, a dreadlocked young man whose passion for the project tumbles out in a cascade of words. "We knew [St. John's] was accessible."
Enthusiasm for the project is evident in the volume of rental requests. 2640 hosts three to four events per week, though the collective could book the space every night if it had more volunteers. Currently, about 10 people form the collective's core, and they meet every other week at the church. The collective's looming concern is fundraising for significant structural renovations to the church, such as handicapped-accessible bathrooms and a library. Acquiring audiovisual equipment is also a prime consideration as the space has begun hosting larger events, many of which take place within the church's Clark room. Formerly the seat of worship--services now convene in the bright, modern Sunday room in the back of the church--the Clark room opens onto St. Paul Street via towering double doors and is flanked by tall stained-glass windows exuding a dusky peacefulness. The room is spacious in the absence of pews, with a high pulpit that now serves as a stage. A broad range of cultural events have been hosted here, from zine and craft fairs to political discussions, film screenings, book talks, a sustainable fashion show, and concerts.
The commingling of groups has fostered some interesting results, as happened recently during performance-art collective Negativland's first ever Baltimore show. A visiting Christian youth group, on a week's retreat at St. John's, attended the packed event among fans eager to see the arts activists who invented "culture jamming." By all reports, the youth group enjoyed the multimedia performance and its theme: a deconstruction of religion.
Exposing people to new ideas and fostering connections are at the heart of the project: 2640 has linked the older generation of radicals with their younger counterparts. "Red Emma's is a relatively young group of people, and it's been nice to work with a congregation that's pretty much a generation ahead of us," Duda says. "It's given us a way to offer a little more space for people to do things. In return we've [made] a lot more connections and [broken] out of our own little scene."
The neighborhood response to 2640 has also been positive. "There are people who [have] lived in Charles Village for years, who have wandered in when we've had events and said, `Wow, it's amazing to see so many people using the space,'" Khatib says. "I think a lot of people in the community were worried about the building because there hadn't been tons of stuff going on [here] for a while."
Khatib also credits Baltimore itself as integral in the success of the project. "It's a unique city, a unique political community," she says. "It definitely says something positive about Baltimore that Red Emma's could survive as long as it has, [and] that 2640 could be built and be growing as quickly as it is. It's definitely not something that would survive in every city."
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