Worshippers find unorthodox homes
By Liz Skalka
The Stamford Advocate
STAMFORD, Conn. — Every Sunday night, the punching bags come down and the cross goes up.
And with that, Revolution Fitness, a popular spot in Stamford’s South End for boxers to practice their jabs and hooks, transforms into a holy space.
Folding chairs form pews across the felt-covered surface of the ring. A countdown clock that buzzes every three minutes during regular gym hours is silenced, replaced by live music. The air is heavy not with sweat, but incense.
For more than three years, Stanwich Congregational Church has held its weekly Stamford service at a decidedly unorthodox place — or not, depending on how you choose to think about it.
“The idea of a sanctuary is just the idea of a space that’s set apart for God,” the Rev. David Borden said.
“During the week, it’s set apart for a god of society, which is the physical body. But then on Sunday, the gym transforms into something quite different — a space that’s no longer lifting up the physical body, but lifting up Jesus.”
It’s not uncommon for groups like Stanwich to worship in places not designed for practicing organized religion. Often it’s done in the absence of funding and enough demand for a building, or because spaces large enough to accommodate an entire congregation are hard to come by. Those who recently secured spaces have generally done so after years of fundraising and outreach to establish a strong base.
Even so, Stamford has 143 physical places of worship exempt from local property taxes, according to the assessor’s office.
In the case of Stanwich, whose main campus is set in backcountry Greenwich, the Stamford satellite was founded to provide a presence in a nearby urban area. The church also holds services on the Harbor Point boardwalk and neighborhood prayer walks.
Borden, Stanwich’s Stamford pastor — who after hours can be found at Revolution Fitness with his gloves on — says the church would like to find a permanent spot in the increasingly unaffordable South End. Borden’s leased office is a block away from the gym on Pacific Street.
But there’s no hurry, he says.
The space is secondary to the message.
When Harvest Time Church, another group based in Greenwich, expanded into Stamford in 2010, it started at the Majestic movie theater downtown.
There were hiccups.
“Because everything at the theater is pre-programmed, a couple of times the previews would start before we were done,” Stamford children’s pastor Kim Foster said. “There’s always that cute little robot thing that pops up first.”
To set up each Sunday morning, staff arrived more than two hours early with a 15-passenger van they used to transport all their sound equipment.
Prayer services for children and adults were held in the theaters themselves. Post-service refreshments were served in the lobby near the concession stand.
Buying a building in Stamford wasn’t really considered since Harvest Time was still testing the waters here, Foster said.
After two years, the Assemblies of God USA congregation, seeking a place that could offer storage, connected with the Palace Theatre, where the church has hosted Sunday services for some 150 people since 2013. Harvest Time’s midweek activities are held at Union Memorial Church.
After moving to the Palace, the congregation was especially delighted to be welcomed with its name in bright lights.
“It was very cool to walk by and see the church’s name up there on the Palace marquee,” Foster said.
For years, members of the Al Madany Islamic Center of Norwalk worshiped in a large, no-frills basement at a home in East Norwalk. The space could fit up to 100 people.
That tradition started in the 1990s and lasted until 2012, former mosque board member Farhan Memon said, at which point they started leasing space for Friday prayers at Christ Episcopal Church.
Around that time, Al Madany used the money it had raised over 15 years to buy land where it hoped to build a mosque. But Norwalk’s zoning commission denied the construction plan and a legal battle alleging discrimination ensued. Ultimately, the city agreed to buy the land from the congregation.
In 2015, Al Madany purchased the former Grace Episcopal Church and set up there permanently.
“For a congregation our size it’s really perfect,” Memon said. “Because it’s a mid-century church, it really had all the amenities we were looking for — sanctuary, classrooms, dining facility, office.”
Besides the city’s pushback, the biggest challenge to securing their own space was fundraising. Memon added that it’s also against his religion to pay interest on loans, so the purchase needed to be made in cash.
“Raising funds is a very big endeavor,” he said. “It requires people to be generous. And when you’re dealing with a population of people who are middle class, they can give you a little bit of money, but it really requires benefactors to provide the bulk.”
Having a place of its own has been a boon to Al Madany’s congregation, which is comprised of Muslims from Stamford and across lower Fairfield County.
“People feel centered and a sense of ownership as a result,” Memon said. “I see them coming to the mosque more regularly and participating in programming. When you have a sense of permanence, you have the ability to put down roots and to grow.
“That notion also applies to how people perceive their place in a larger community like Norwalk. You feel much more a part of the civic community.”
For nearly as long as Rabbi Deborah Salomon has been running Hebrew Wizards, a nonprofit school designed to make Jewish education engaging and fun (think music, games, color wars and summer camp), she has wanted a space that could accommodate her vision.
Salomon, who is from Stamford, previously ran her non-denominational Hebrew school out of several Greenwich locations — the Boys & Girls Club, YMCA and First United Methodist Church.
Since her Hebrew Wizards curriculum — used in synagogues around the country — incorporates colorful boards and other physical materials, she was constantly lugging boxes from place to place.
But a year or so ago, Salomon was finally ready to invest in a building when the right one appeared. Hebrew Wizards moved to a two-story rug showroom in Cos Cob that Salomon has transformed into a warm space that feels more like a teen center than stuffy religious school.
“That’s why it’s so important to have our own home,” Salomon said. “It’s been paramount to reinventing the curriculum and spending our energy focused on education and not constantly setting up and wondering where you’re going to be able to feel at home.”
Salomon purchased the River Road building through her family foundation, which leases it to Hebrew Wizards.
“I’ve wanted this building for 13 years,” she said. “After we saw the success of the school, we thought making an investment would be a contribution to the community.”