This World, and the Next

I t looks like a spaceship that touched down on Dixwell Avenue in the ’60s and never left. As you walk around it, the structure seems to change shape. Its cut-stone walls jut at all angles like a pile of pamphlets that needs to be neatened. The building is surrounded by a moat of green grass, crossable by four elevated walkways. A two-story tower at the center stands like a sentinel. Save signage here and there, nothing about its form suggests its function.

Of course the building that houses Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ—or simply Dixwell Church—did not come from outer space. Rather, it came from the inner space of architect John M. Johansen. Johansen was a member of the “Harvard Five,” a posse of celebrated architects famous for making New Canaan, Connecticut, a hive of modernist innovation starting in the 1940s. A couple decades later, when Dixwell Church was looking to move out of its old hall at 100 Dixwell Avenue and into a new space, the progressive pastor, Reverend Dr. Edwin Richardson Edmonds (“Doc”), opted into New Haven’s “Model City” renewal movement, choosing Johansen as the architect.

sponsored by

Enroll in Fall Term Classes at Creative Arts Workshop

As out of place and time as the retro-futuristic structure may seem today, when it was built in 1968, Dixwell Church’s modernist shell was on the cutting edge of architecture, which is appropriate for an institution that’s often been well ahead of its time.

The church, originally the African Ecclesiastical Society, was founded by white abolitionist Simeon Jocelyn and 24 former slaves in 1820—28 years before slavery would be abolished in Connecticut. The congregation took part in the aftermath of the Amistad uprising in 1839, and early pastors participated in the Underground Railroad. Some were even “conductors.”

The congregation’s fight for social justice entered its second major arena during the civil rights era of the 20th century. After being chased out of Greensboro, NC, by the KKK for his activism, Reverend Edmonds, a native Texan, took the reins at Dixwell Church in 1959 and began working to create a black middle class in the city. Under his leadership, the church built a creative arts center, a daycare and the Florence Virtue Homes, an affordable housing complex. The church helped the fledgling Dixwell Community “Q” House by donating space for its first location at 98 Dixwell Avenue. The two organizations collaborated extensively and moved in tandem into their adjacent “Model City” homes in the late ’60s.

sponsored by

Joyful Learning at Cold Spring School

Today, when you travel into the church across the suspended concrete walkway and into the otherworldly building, you’ll discover—perhaps with relief—that the church is not the labyrinth its exterior suggests. While sunlight cuts into the church from unexpected places and the walls often meet at irregular angles, the nave has a floor plan not too different from other churches. There’s a standard order to the pews and a clear visual focus on the pulpit. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the space is the gentle purple light that radiates from behind the gold-ocher cross on the altar wall.

The Sunday I attended, the service began with the all-youth Sunbeam Choir singing “O, How I Love Jesus,” “This Little Light of Mine” and other Christian songs. Then things turned to graver matters.

That Sunday was the first after the shootings in Minnesota, Baton Rouge and Dallas. Reverend Dr. Frederick J. Streets stood up to deliver the sermon for the week. He started off slowly, unraveling the “complex feelings” of the week. As the sermon went on, the volume of his voice rose. He spoke about the mass shooting at Orlando among others and asked the congregation to consider “what kind of tragedy would change us.” By the end, Streets brought the sermon to a fiery fervor, concluding with a roaring affirmation that he will not give up on America, despite its flaws and troubles.

Afterward, I met with Streets, the church’s senior pastor, in his office. He took off his jacket, loosened his tie and spoke calmly and evenly, as befits an audience of one. His flywheel-style sermon—starting slow and building to a rocketing momentum—is standard in many black churches, Streets explained. If you don’t follow the progression, “people start wondering if you know what you’re doing.”

Though Streets can become spirited when the moment calls, full-grown “hallelujahs” were scarce during service. Dixwell Church’s mostly black congregation tends to attract members from the middle class, and while there is still singing and occasional full-hall clap-alongs, Streets admits that his flock is markedly more reserved compared to some Baptist and Pentacostal churches. “We appear to them too quiet,” he says.

Dixwell Church’s 125-person parish ranges predominantly between ages 50 and 102, the latter describing its oldest member, Ann Louthier. An important exception to this trend is the Sunbeam Choir, which, made up of grade-schoolers, is a beam of youth for the aging congregation—one Streets hopes to widen.

He describes his term at the church as a bridge from the present to the future. Even looking to attract a younger crowd, Streets isn’t about to pretend to be something he’s not. But he is taking stock. “I’m not old and stuffy,” he says. “I’m not Kanye either.”

Dixwell Church
217 Dixwell Ave, New Haven (map)
Sunday service: 11am-12:15pm
(203) 787-5839

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik. Image #4 depicts Reverend Dr. Frederick J. Streets.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

Leave a Reply