A READING ROOM WITHOUT WALLS
"If we can break down our own mental walls—the limits of place and environment—and reexamine how we pray, how we think ... we can help demonstrate more of God's kingdom on earth, right here .... What I am praying most about is the ability of our Reading Room to serve mankind better, in whatever way God will have us .... "
Librarian in a downtown metropolitan area
These days there is a lot of rethinking going on. A revitalized recognition of the significance of the Science of Christ for the whole community compels this rethinking. Many branch church memberships are beginning to recognize that the health and vitality of their churches is directly linked to the degree of active spiritual purpose they are demonstrating in the community. The Reading Room is being "re-discovered" as the link. And the most successful Reading Rooms are those that have prayerfully discerned and supplied what the community needs.
It's interesting to realize that while a study room isn't specifically mentioned in the provision for Reading Rooms in the Manual of The Mother Church by Mrs. Eddy, "reading rooms" were common in her day. They could be found not only in libraries but in hotels, on board ocean liners, at resorts, and in train stations, for example. These were places where people could follow ideas of current interest and get the latest news from newspapers, topical discussions, book reviews, and so forth. These "reading rooms" were located wherever it was most convenient and natural for them to be used. When we think of our Christian Science Reading Rooms as a healing presence in the community, isn't it natural for us to consider first not just our own convenience but our neighbors' needs?
A Reading Room in the United States reported
"Our church had always maintained its Reading Room in the church building since the forming of the church over 50 years ago. However, the membership had been praying specifically about finding a good location in the community .... We were able to secure a corner space with large windows in both directions. This part of the city has been renovated and beautified .... We are near the city government buildings and across from the juvenile probation department. We are very happy with the acceptance of our Reading Room by the community. [People] can't miss the large sign indicating who we are." This Reading Room is very active these days.
One of the Reading Rooms sponsored by The Mother Church is located in the South End, a Boston neighborhood of significant ethnic and racial diversity. The librarian no longer just sits behind his desk but has actively got to know the neighborhood and its people. Explaining how his thinking has changed, he says, "Since I started working as a librarian seven or eight months ago, I have come to focus on community and neighbors as never before. I used to think of a Reading Room as a place for Christian Scientists to quietly study and pray. It's still that to me, but now the idea is so much expanded. I see the actual focus of Reading Room as the vibrant activity of living the two great commandments Christ Jesus taught us. In short, the Reading Room has ceased to be merely a place to me. Instead it is the embodiment of brotherly love." This librarian was invited to appear on a local television community-affairs program to talk about the Sunday services held in Spanish in the Reading Room, and about what the community can find there. Inquiries about Christian Science resulted.
There's a livelier look and feel to many Reading Rooms. This liveliness is outwardly visible, but it goes much deeper than appearances. What is catching on is a renewed vision of the Christ-spirit, the mission of healing. And reports show both modest and dramatic increases in Reading Room activity. One joint Reading Room in a southern United States city ... tells of a tangible spirit of revitalization. It has moved to a more visible location and now has from thirty to forty visitors a day, up from an average of ten to twelve before. Most of these are not church members, and some have become regular visitors.
Not surprisingly, when the mental "walls" are down, we get to know our neighbors better, find it easier to talk, easier to share. The workers at one Reading Room make regular friendly visits up and down the street and have got to know people at local institutions and businesses. When people know you care, they listen and are interested, the workers say. Barriers, even seemingly strong cultural and language ones, don't stop people from coming in and investigating what the Reading Room has for them. This Reading Room often has visitors of various nationalities and backgrounds. What is the librarian's approach? She says that her prayer has been giving her a new sense of how to reach out to her neighbors and community—in a way that isn't formularized or routine. She writes, "My focus has changed from trying to offer what I thought the community should have to a greater listening to God—and to the community—for what they are telling me is the need. And then I listen some more for what 'in the Father's house' is the perfect answer to meet that need."
This kind of prayerful listening can break some old patterns. Sometimes we have to ask, Are we doing things a certain way merely out of tradition? Yet if something new is needed, what is it? After all, there's no formula for the style, approach, hours, and location of a Reading Room. A Reading Room in Africa is going to have a different form than one in Germany, because the communities have their own special individual needs. And as members pray for inspired ways to meet those needs, there can be interesting innovations!
Take the case of a very active Reading Room in Nigeria. It is in a one-room tin-roofed building that also serves as the church on Sunday and Wednesday. During the week, the room is set up as the Reading Room. Since all the members have to work in the fields to earn their living, a sign is left on the door of the building, saying that the key is with the next-door merchant. All are welcome to get the key, let themselves in, study, read, borrow, or purchase (on the honor system—leaving payment in the money box), and return the key. "Our Reading Room is very busy," a member reports.
While individual Reading Rooms are managed very differently, what they have in common is that success comes from prayer, including careful study of the Manual provisions that guide them to see what is most essential in demonstrating the availability of Christian Science. Also, dropping stereotyped views and expressing a greater degree of practicality and flexibility make it possible for more people to have access to a Reading Room.
Another branch church, located near a university campus, concluded that since their neighborhood was busiest in the afternoon and evenings—that was the time there was the most foot traffic—they should change their hours to accommodate this fact. Now, instead of being open from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon, they are open from the early afternoon into the evening. With the front door open, students began to wander in to talk with the staff. Significant discussions about religion ensued, and the Christian Science college organization on that campus grew.
Other Reading Rooms are discovering that they can do more for children. This has led to an increase in Reading Room activity. For instance, a librarian in a Boston Reading Room tells of some consecrated praying she was spurred to do when she heard that the state legislature, which meets not too far from the Reading Room, was preparing to debate a bill that would change the wording of a state statute protecting the right of parents to rely on prayer for healing their children. The new wording would have put the practice of Christian Science in the category of child abuse.
She writes, "My continuing prayer and study took many inspiring turns as God led the way. I prayed for ways that the Reading Room could show Christian Scientists' love for children. Soon a warm relationship developed with our neighbors at the Boston School superintendent's office and the teachers' association, and we were able to share things that were helpful for them to read. This extended to some local clergy as well. A few of them are now glad to receive material published by The Christian Science Publishing Society and share it with their own parishes. People involved with the law and child abuse prevention used the Reading Room, also, and some people who had been victims of abuse began to visit the Reading Room and became interested in studying Science. These were just some of the many effects. I know I wasn't alone in my prayers. Our wonderful staff are strong metaphysicians. . . . "
The real continuing success of a Reading Room certainly is linked to this kind of work. Strong metaphysicians—committed healers —know why the Reading Room is there, and why they are there. Their prayers aren't confined within the walls of a building. How can prayer be confined? And when Christian Scientists are bearing witness to the real man, the man of God's creating, and holding fast to the spiritual nature of His universe, what a wonderful, healing atmosphere results. Can it be felt? Does it attract? A woman tells of her first experiences with a Reading Room:
"I wasn't quite sure why I was going in the first few times. What should I say? What should I ask for? I'd go in and browse around and look at the books, but I felt embarrassed because I didn't have any money to spend on them. The librarian, however, never gave any hint that she noticed! She had an amazing way of making me feel unawkward ... about not buying anything. To her, it was the most natural thing in the world that I happened to walk in. It started to feel that way for me, too, that it was natural for me to be there. It was 'my place.' I wasn't an 'outsider' looking in; I belonged. I learned to study the Bible Lesson, and I began to discover what the Church was all about. A year and several healings later I became a member of The Mother Church!"
• Finding new and more effective ways to display and present Science and Health.
Mrs. Eddy expected that the textbook would be actively promoted and sold in Reading Rooms. Reading Room workers are gaining a clearer understanding of the textbook's meaningfulness to the many people today who are searching for a new sense of purpose and identity, as well as for healing.
• Developing ideas that identify the Reading Room as a natural resource for children.
A special area for children—a small table and chairs, a headset to listen to the "Story and Song" Bible cassettes—creates a welcoming environment and is leading to more young visitors coming in. One urban Reading Room has been identifying itself as a safe place for children to go after school, and teachers and parents have expressed gratitude.
• Coordinating lectures with Reading Room activity in new ways.
Lecture and Reading Room committees are discovering dynamic new ways of working together. A Boston Reading Room, in its outreach plans, coordinated with a Christian Science lecture presentation on career development and employment. This resulted in requests for Science and Health and Sentinels.
• Emphasizing the Reading Room as a source for Bibles and Bible study.
There's a new emphasis on letting local churches of other denominations know that their members and clergy are always welcome to use the Reading Room's research area and resources. Ministers are appreciating the use of Concord. And children's Bible story cassettes and other items have found an audience with Sunday School teachers of neighboring churches who are grateful to know about them.
• More outreach, transformation, healing.
A woman experiencing extreme mental difficulties was seen lying on the sidewalk near the Reading Room —dirty, disoriented, and begging for money. She repeatedly came into the Reading Room asking for books to read, and ... was warmly welcomed. The staff patiently supported her in her efforts to rely on Christian Science for help with her difficulties. Recently, she came into the Reading Room clean, nicely dressed, and saying that she has a new place to live. She purchased a textbook to give to a friend.