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The Ecumenical Parking Lot

Agincourt’s founders philosophical inderstanding of the landscape had physical consequences. They wove a web from the abstract realm of idealism and then, of necessity, applied it to the realities of a physical world, not to mention the illogical, erratic, unpredictable behaviours of our species. They set in motion a domino effect whose ultimate force and trajectory haven’t yet played themselves out. They would be pleased with its latest consequence.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

The Ecumenical Parking Lot

Agincourt’s original town plan has been treated here before: a not untypical (get the double negative?) mid-19th century railroad grid–with a transcendental spin.

At Agincourt’s heart the Founders acknowledged core values drawn from a 19th century ideal–the trinity of body-mind-spirit–sensing that our physical wellbeing (our body) exists in a framework of mind (intellect) and spirit (belief). They built these into their plan as places for public assembly (The Commons, The Square), for governance (the courthouse), and for education (The Academy and four school lots), defined by parentheses of spirituality (the four Church Lots).

A general understanding during westward expansion held that no community would be any more stable than the proportion of its families with children, and the stability of those families depended upon  nurturing churches, spiritual familes. So, among the earliest entries in the annals of city government, there is a note about the distribution of the four Church Lots: a lottery among the largest denominational groups represented in the population.

Any interested denomination had to muster twelve heads-of-household (an egalitarian point of view, since it allowed the participation of widows, long before the 19th Amendment acknowledged a woman’s right to vote!). There were six contenders for the four choice lots: Methodists, Baptists of the northern variety, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Someone was going to be disappointed. The lottery was double-blind: a first drawing determined the order of selection. We’re hardpressed to imagine something more fair and balanced.

Each site is a story in itself, but the one that concerns us today is Lot A-5, northwest of the courthosue, where Methodists built the first of three successive buildings. That site has nurtured the spirit of ecumenism more than the Founders could have foreseen.

Hebrews and Muslims and Bears, oh my!

Among our earliest settlers were a miscellany of believers (and, one imagines, a goodly number of the ungodly, as well, but they were ineligible for the lottery!), and among them was at least one Jewish family: the Kabakers, our first haberdashers. Out of necessity they traveled to Des Moines for High Holy Days. It took more than sixty years for Agincourt to accumulate sufficient Jewish population to warrant a synagogue structure, a threshhold reached at the end of World War I. So, in 1920 two places of worship began construction: the present United Methodist church (replacing an 1880s structure destroyed by fire) and also Temple Emanu-El at the corner of James and Third Street NW. From their simultaneous dedication in November 1920, both congregations have shared the parking lot between them, the Jews for Saturday Sabbath and the Methodists on Sunday.

Flash forward to the 1990s, when Agincourt welcomed the first of many African refugees, the initial wave from Somalia and then a second from Darfur, all of them anxious for what we sometimes like to believe is America’s religious tolerance and their own spiritual home. So in late 2003, the Methodist governing board sold the southwest corner of its original church lot “for $1 and other considerations” for use in perpetuity by the Agincourt Islamic Center. And now that parking lot hosts a third religious tradition: the Friday worship of our large resident Muslim population.

 

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Parking — the boon of commerce — has now become its bane. In so many cities, the ratio between parking places and shopping destinations has long since reversed itself; you can park everywhere but shop in fewer and fewer stores. All of which makes Lot A-5 the more remarkable.

The ongoing Middle Eastern situation notwithstanding, somewhere Ibrahim/Avram/Abraham is smiling. His triune descendants have agreed to cooperate on a small plot of land in northwestern Iowa — in a Congressional district represented by Steve King!


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