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WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE READING ROOMS?

INTERVIEW WITH ETHEL BAKER

From the August 2008 issue of The Christian Science Journal


FOR 120 YEARS, READING ROOMS have presented Christian Science to their communities and sold products produced or distributed by The Christian Science Publishing Society. Today, there are about 1,500 of these rooms in more than 70 countries, most in the United States. Ethel Baker, Senior Manager, and Linda Conner, Field Manager of Christian Science Reading Room Activities, have visited many of these Reading Rooms, holding more than 30 workshops worldwide, involving about 2,000 members from 500 branch churches. These interactive workshops explore the indispensable place that Reading Rooms occupy in communities—and the world—by making available to humanity the healing, saving ideas of Christian Science.

I recently spoke with Ethel about what Reading Rooms can do—even more than they do already—to fulfill their unlimited potential.

JEFFREY HILDNER: Let's flash back to the roots of the mission of Reading Rooms—back to Mary Baker Eddy's vision.

ETHEL BAKER: Well, as you know, a Church of Christ, Scientist, can't be established without a Reading Room. So, clearly, Mary Baker Eddy felt that a Reading Room would be critical to a church's activity. You could say that the Reading Room partakes of the definition of Church in Science and Health—that the Reading Room's mission is also to elevate the race and rouse the dormant understanding [see p. 583]. The Reading Rooms also contribute to the mission of Christian Science: to "reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing" [Church Manual, p. 17]. These are global undertakings that affect all humanity.

Reading rooms were common in Mrs. Eddy's day. Publishers established them for purchasers to "taste-test" their products. Books were expensive, and a reading room provided a venue where individuals could read before purchasing books and for traveling salesmen to choose the ones they would take on the road.

The first Christian Science Reading Room was opened in 1888 so Mrs. Eddy could make her writings and her other publications readily available. Although she originally sold her writings to bookstores and continued to do so throughout her lifetime, the Reading Rooms established by the Church Manual gave the public, as well as Christian Scientists, assured access to this special collection of publications as well as a spiritual atmosphere—to guarantee a healing environment to all who entered.

And so the worldwide band of Reading Rooms continues that mission today. And it's crucial mission because it's the primary way our neighbors can find Christian Science literature and thereby have access to the inspired understanding of the Bible that Mary Baker Eddy discovered. Let's talk about how we're doing in fulfilling Mary Baker Eddy's unique mission for Christian Science Reading Rooms. We could start by asking how we might measure success—not necessarily a formula but a set of principles that could provide a compass for branch church members to evaluate how they could make improvements.

The first thing, of course, is prayer. To be clear that the Reading Room is a spiritual idea, an effective, integral part of the full expression of Church. One of my co-workers shared the idea that if the Reading Room is an "arm" or extension of the church, it is not a burden, any more than the arm is a burden to the body. It actually enables the church to be completely what it needs to be and can be for its community. It's an asset, not a liability, just as the arm is to the body. The divine directive to "establish" a Reading Room is supported by and fulfilled by divine Love's embrace of everyone. We can keep our thought focused on that higher healing mission and the active inclusion of one's community. It's easy to think that the primary work is putting displays together, unpacking new products, etc. All of this is good and has a place. But are we embracing community issues and actively praying about them? And are we expecting that prayer to be effective?

The spiritualization of one's thought can make all the difference, even while we are doing those other things. If we're mentally closed to expecting people to come in or if we're involved mentally in our own needs and interests, we've shut off a vital connection with the public. So the praying or Truth-knowing we do, consciously and conscientiously, especially while we're in the Reading Room, shines a light. And this light attracts. Many Reading Room librarians will tell you they've had people come in and say, "I just felt led to come in here. What's Christian Science all about?"

Another key is really looking deeply at what the Church Manual By-Law on Reading Rooms [pp. 63–64] has to say about the characteristics of the location, the staff, and the nature, sale, and exhibiting of the products within the Reading Room. It's important to regularly revisit what the Manual says (as well as what it does not say) about Reading Rooms.

The third necessity is dealing with animal magnetism—with the belief that something can obscure that spiritual light. I've sometimes thought that if a car crashed into the front window of a Reading Room I was serving in, I would be on that case in a second. But instead, what we need to be alert to comes as emptiness or an apparent lack of interest from the public. These conditions seem acceptable so we acquiesce to them. And yet they aren't acceptable, because these rooms are meant to be active places where people come regularly for spiritual food and resources for healing. Mrs. Eddy answered a question that someone once sent to her: "What do you consider to be mental malpractice?" And she said it is "a bland denial of Truth ..." [Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896, p. 31].

Let's build on those essentials. Now, what else would be required for each Reading Room to be truly viable and successful?

Well, we could look at these ingredients: • Location • Hours • Presentation • Staff • Sales • Goals

OK. Let's go one by one. Anything else you've observed about location?

Where is the Reading Room located in our thought? What kind of priority does the Reading Room have for us individually and for our church membership? Is it a burden? Is it something we think about last? Or do we see how much of a priority it should have based on what is explained in the Church Manual? Also, it's important to think about how the Reading Room is located in the thought of the community. Is it thought of as open, inviting, fresh, clean, and relevant? Is the Reading Room seen as the place where those in the community gather when there's a special need or concern? Is the Reading Room recognized for the comfort that it offers on an ongoing basis? Obviously, the answer should be, Yes! Mrs. Eddy wanted the Reading Room to be a place where "people will be most apt to go into it" [L00247, Mary Baker Eddy to the Christian Science Board of Directors, May 16, 1900, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection, The Mary Baker Eddy Library].

And what about hours? Let me give you my two cents. Corner markets like 7-Eleven stay open long hours. Easy to find, open a lot. I envision Christian Science Reading Rooms that stay open many hours each day and are known in the community as a place where the light is always on. A pipe dream? No. I'm certain that as a church family we can achieve more. Again, it starts in thought. The Bible says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish" [Prov. 29:18]. It's not a question of buildings or money or even people. I just learned about a Christian Science congregation that's only four people strong. Their Reading Room is open something like 30 hours a week. Now that's a lot for four people, but they feel that commitment.

A few branch memberships have decided to sell their church building and have poured their resources into the Reading Room. So members serve there rather than perhaps working many hours to maintain a church building.

It seems a bit paradoxical that we have tended to spend a good deal of time and resources on church buildings, which understandably are open just a few hours a week. Yet Reading Rooms, which ideally should be open many hours a week, are given much less attention—even though, in effect, the Reading Room is the face of Christian Science in the community—for all those same hours each week that the church is not open.

Just shows that creativity is so important, both in the quantity and quality of the hours people work in the Reading Room.

A businessman wanted to serve in his Reading Room, but the only time he could do so was in the evening. He realized that this time was actually perfect, because not only was that the only time he could be there, but that was the best time for others working during the day to come in. So sometimes it's just creativity about what's possible. Something we've encouraged Reading Room librarians to try is to take a month and schedule as many people in their congregation to serve in the Reading Room for as many hours as they can. And then see how that impacts their community.

So let's go to the third component you identified: presentation.

We need to reconsider presentation often as we strive to keep our Reading Rooms—like our periodicals—as Mrs. Eddy instructed, "abreast of the times." Also, our Reading Room presentation should be a representation of what the Reading Room itself is all about. When there's literature that's becoming outdated or worn or if there's very little on display or it's behind the counter where people can't investigate it for themselves—all these things send signals to a customer. They say, These materials are private, unimportant, or just old and no longer relevant. So we need to show our literature and our Reading Rooms in a way that a visitor can quickly grasp that this is fresh, current, important material, that they present significant, practical ideas—and they are here for everyone to explore.

One Reading Room was having challenges about getting new displays in their windows regularly. The staff gathered to talk about it, and in the midst of the conversation someone started using the term "window treatments" instead of "window displays." Well, it suddenly dawned on them that a way to discover what they needed in their windows was to give a Christian Science treatment for some need in their community. So this is what they did—and apparently it has made both coming up with display ideas and actually preparing them much easier, more efficient and effective.

When it comes to the look and feel of the Reading Room, what tips can you offer? How important are modern retail standards?

A conversation has to be two-way. Modern retail standards are based on the fact that people have very little time and have to assess a situation quickly. So current practice is that retail windows need to be eye-catching; they've got to be clean and generally simple and uncluttered so people can quickly gather what's going on. It also helps if the room itself is open—that it doesn't appear dark or concealed or mysterious.

A librarian told me about a time when she invited a friend to stop by the Reading Room before they went to lunch. She asked her friend to walk around the room and to give her impressions. There was a study room in the back with some bookcases and plump chairs. The friend peered into the room and said, "Is that an apartment?" It suddenly gave the librarian a whole new view of what seemed very commonplace to their church members but which looked rather mysterious to someone new. So we need to look more from the outside in. And we want to make the room as user-friendly, as fresh, as comfortable for the public as we can.

In the past we've tended to think that putting a sign up that says "Public Welcome" or "All are Welcome" is a way of making sure the people will come in. But in fact, we've found that many get a negative sense from this, that it can imply, "You are not part of this group," or "Come in so we can convert you." Something, however, that does tend to invite people in is: "[Names of credit cards] accepted/welcome here." Then the public understands better what goes on in a Reading Room, that they are a welcome customer with the freedom to purchase or not. By the way, at The Mother Church Reading Room 80 percent of the sales are by credit card.

When we look around at the modern business landscape, we see other people staying in business and thriving—the cleaners and the booksellers and the restaurants and the candle shops. What are they doing?

One thing you notice is that they always have plenty of merchandise in stock, ready to sell. That shows people that the store owners value these products and expect strong sales. Though Mrs. Eddy occasionally gave her book Science and Health as a gift to others, for the most part, she sold her writings and she expected members of her church to do the same [see Journal, March 1897, "Notice from Mary Baker Eddy," p. 575].

OK. The fourth component—the staff.

That's covered in the "Librarian" section of the Manual By-Law, and the job description there makes interesting reading! You might consider that whoever is serving in a Reading Room at any time is the librarian and by virtue of one's willingness to serve in that capacity, he or she includes the qualities listed in that section—having "no bad habits, experience in the Field, being welleducated, and a devout Christian Scientist." The By-Law also indicates that the librarian is to sell and exhibit the literature of the Christian Science Publishing Society. Each person serving in the Reading Room can listen both to the customer and to Love's response—to hear what a visitor is seeking and respond with a product that can help.

I've seen some incredibly talented Christian Scientists working in Reading Rooms who have learned how to listen to their customers, whether it's someone who is actually standing in front of them or listening to what's going on in their community. Let's remember, too, that all Reading Room products are the result of much prayer and are meant to fulfill customer needs.

The other thing I've seen dedicated Reading Room staff do is inform themselves about their stock. They read up on what they have, as well as reading the material itself. For example, I know a woman who took the trouble to listen to many of the musical CDs available in the Reading Room. Not very long after she'd started doing that, a woman came in whose daughter was about to be posted to Iraq. This Reading Room staffer offered a couple of items and then the idea came to her that perhaps the CDs would be helpful. The woman ended up purchasing six or seven of them. So as we're prepared to listen for the need, we'll see what to offer that meets it.

So you're really talking about the attitude of the staff. Basically, that we need to be aware that it's a people business.

That's so true. I think we have to be committed to actually tackling the challenges before us—especially the matter of little or no business going on. Take one Reading Room that was keeping long hours. One night nobody had come in for some time and one of the two people on the staff that night said, "You know this is not acceptable." There's provision in the Manual called "Rule of Conduct" [p. 81], which is cross-referenced in the Reading Room By-Law. It says, "No objectionable pictures shall be exhibited in the rooms where the Christian Science textbook is published or sold. No idle gossip, no slander, no mischief making, no evil speaking shall be allowed." Well, this staffer thought, An empty Reading Room is an objectionable picture. I am not putting up with that in my thinking. Nothing can obscure the light of the Christ. Animal magnetism cannot keep anyone from finding their way to this room and to the good that is here. She actually walked around the Reading Room and claimed these things aloud. She wasn't passive. She was putting down the suggestion that there wasn't anybody interested, that the Christ wasn't present or powerful right then. And five minutes before the room closed, somebody walked in. It was the first time this individual had ever been in a Reading Room. After a conversation of 15 or 20 minutes, this person made a significant purchase. Although I can't prove it categorically, I am convinced that this woman would not have come in if it hadn't been for the specific prayer the staff member did.

Do you know of an instance when systematic prayer for Reading Rooms made a difference?

Yes. In one, the librarian is a woman you would think was probably long retired, but she is very active. She and her small staff serve in their Reading Room, which is in their church building and located in a residential area. She has committed to being up daily at 6:30 a.m. to pray about their community and the Reading Room. The other Reading Room workers have each selected different times each day to do this same kind of praying. And they have seen greater traffic in the Reading Room, along with increased sales. This growth has spilled over to new admissions into the Sunday School, new people coming to church, and a larger attendance at lectures the church has given. It's that "devotion of thought ... [that] makes the achievement possible" [Science and Health, p. 199].

We also met a membership in another community who are ardent pray-ers. In fact, it started with just the Reading Room staff focusing on certain subjects to pray about in the community. But this consecrated prayer began to have such decided effects in the Reading Room—and was bringing out such energy and inspiration in the Reading Room staff—that other people wanted to join the prayer effort. Eventually every single member in their church joined. And they, too, are seeing increased activity in other aspects of their church, including in the Reading Room.

Now let's talk about sales—and about the profit incentive as it fits in with Mary Baker Eddy's mission.

Profit is an absolutely essential idea. For any business to be a going concern, it's got to make a profit, not just to stay in business but to expand its reach. The only way you can do that is to make gains, progress, and reinvest in the business. That's what nonprofit organizations such as churches do with profits. Such gains enable us to help our communities more. Mrs. Eddy wrote a letter in August 1896 to the Board of Trustees of the Publishing Society and said, "Do not let the sales diminish. My books must be attended to if nothing else is for the sake of our cause and the salvation of mortals" [L03584, Mary Baker Eddy to Thomas W. Hatten, August 24, 1896, The Mary Baker Eddy Library]. So Mrs. Eddy was relating sales to "the salvation of mortals"—not a mercenary motive, but a mercy motive. It wasn't a desire to be a big church or a big Reading Room. It was about the ability of the membership to continue to reach out further and further, to touch more lives, and to give access to Christian Science to an increasing number of hungering hearts. It was about saving humanity.

So profit is a legitimate and necessary sign of a church mission being fulfilled?

Yes, I think so. As Mrs. Eddy said, "growth is the eternal mandate of Mind" [Science and Health, p. 520]. And in the same book, she also said, "progress is the law of God, whose law demands of us only what we can certainly fulfill" [p. 233].

Let's shift to goals. Successful individuals, enterprises, and businesses know that if you don't have goals, you can't measure success. So, Ethel, what else can help Reading Rooms measure their success and thrive, not just survive? For example, perhaps the goal of operating as a viable business—maintaining operating hours consistent with modern retail standards and achieving financial self-sufficiency—would be a minimum place to set the bar?

Well, I think many congregations would feel that's a very big stretch right now. Nevertheless, we can start today and from right where we are. We can embrace the largeness, the enormous significance of Reading Rooms now. In No and Yes, Mrs. Eddy had this to say, "The two largest words in the vocabulary of thought are 'Christian' and 'Science'" [p. 10]. This makes a Christian Science Reading Room tremendously important. Sometimes we suggest to librarians that if they've metaphysically treated one problem in their community, then it's time to take a couple of problems from the local newspaper and give those issues Christian Science treatments. That will make a difference in the activity in the Reading Room. And it's very doable because it begins with one's own thought, maybe even with one's own next thought.

Do you know of a Reading Room that has set goals?

Yes. The Mother Church Reading Room sets sales goals. The staff comes together and determines per month what their goals will be. And they set a goal also for sales of Science and Health. The more they've done that over time, they've pretty routinely exceeded those goals. In Science and Health, Mrs. Eddy wrote: "The discoverer of Christian Science finds the path less difficult when she has the high goal always before her thoughts, than when she counts her footsteps in endeavoring to reach it. When the destination is desirable, expectation speeds our progress" [p. 426].

Another Reading Room in a metropolitan area in the US was selling about three copies of Science and Health a month. They were open 40–50 hours a week and had a great location downtown. A lot of window exposure and a lot of stock, which was great. But not a lot of traffic inside. Well, this librarian, a devoted reader of Science and Health, decided that with all this Reading Room had going for it, there was no reason not to sell at least one Science and Health each day. So she set that goal. She made it a practice when somebody came in to tell them about Science and Health and to say, "This book and the Bible are what this store is centered on." And she turned the book over in their hands and had them read the back of the book and just told them a little about how Christian Science has bettered her life. You know, in her first couple of months she went from three books a month to selling 15, and then she doubled her sales over the next several months.

On one occasion she told us of a time when it was halfway through the month and she had sold only four books. There was an assistant librarian with her that day, and they determined that they were going to stop everything and read that week's Bible Lesson together and use it to treat the problems they were aware of in their community. They were not even an hour into that work, and they had sold four more Science and Healths. I say this about selling Science and Health, but this has relevance to every other product in a Reading Room. It really is a commitment to realizing that selling these products to people is the most Christian thing you can do.

This book Science and Health and all the products derived from both it and the Bible have healed people of disease as well as all kinds of moral problems and financial troubles and marital issues. And that's gone on for 130+ years now. It's hard to put a price on that. I just feel that all of us who have been blessed by it are called to express in some way how important and valuable this literature is.

While all of the ingredients we've been talking about may be necessary for a thriving Reading Room, surely no single ingredient alone is sufficient for success. Do you know of a Reading Room that has blended all six of them?

Many Reading Rooms are showing varying degrees of success and signs of renewal and prosperity. Also, there are a number of joint Reading Rooms, usually in urban areas, that are moving in this direction. They tend to be in very public locations. They're generally open long hours, and especially during business hours. Many of them have some or at least one paid staff member. And that's what their job is—to stay focused on the purpose of the Reading Room, to serve their customers. There also tends to be a lot of support for these Reading Rooms, both financially and in the number of churches sponsoring them.

That gets us back to elevating the importance of a Reading Room in the thought and action of an entire branch church community. It makes me wonder: If a branch church were to start from scratch to create—or recreate—a Reading Room, what could it do?

Those that I'm aware of that have done this have gone back to the By-Law and looked at it with new eyes. Sometimes this has started with only a single member praying and embracing what the Reading Room is meant to be. Often people will feel, Well, nobody else in my branch church feels the way I do about it. That's OK. You don't need to get other members to join you in this right away. Jesus said of the Christ, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me" [John 12:32]. The rooms that are showing signs of progress and prosperity, however modestly, are those that look outward, because this is service to humanity.

From what you're saying, it seems that the only way to really energize our Reading Rooms toward a greater support of this Science that we've all been privileged to have guiding our lives, and one way to help other people, is through a passionate and compassionate regeneration of how we think about the Reading Room.

In Jesus' day, of course, there weren't any Reading Rooms. Information and ideas were mostly transmitted orally. But Jesus was continually ensuring that a bigger audience had access to his teachings. He made sure his disciples went out and spread the word before he arrived to preach to people. In that sense, you could say he was available many hours a day to expose people to both his healing works and to his teachings. Today, technology is helping us do that with websites that complement our bricks-and-mortar Reading Rooms. And cell phones, for example, help us answer calls even when the Reading Room is closed. The vital thing is for us to give what Mary Baker Eddy called the "millions of unprejudiced minds," the "simple seekers for Truth" [Science and Health, p. 570] ready access to the materials that articulate the ideas that Mrs. Eddy called Christian Science.

What we're talking about is challenging assumptions about Reading Rooms—and about Church—in ways consistent with the Manual.

The solutions to what seem like huge problems and burdens are within reach, not way off in the future. Maybe it's being who we are right now but allowing ourselves to grow by starting with our own thinking and our community, quite literally one thought at a time. There are no downsides to thinking in an expansive, nothing's-impossible way. Only upsides. Mrs. Eddy wrote, "The measure of Life shall increase by every spiritual touch, even as the leaven expands the loaf" [Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896, p. 175]. This is something we each can do—let our thought be touched by spiritual Truth—for our own Reading Rooms and for the wide world that Reading Rooms are meant to serve. This work has a cumulative momentum and effect. Imagine, if every church member commits to consistently increasing such spiritual touches, one thought at a time, the prospects for Reading Rooms are very bright indeed.

♦


SENIOR MANAGER, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE READING ROOM ACTIVITIES, THE WRITINGS OF MARY BAKER EDDY, AND THE MOTHER CHURCH READING ROOMS

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