The community of Muscle Shoals has a unique opportunity in the months ahead to breathe some life into an 156-year-old church that stands largely unused today.

In the coming months, an advisory team of 15 residents will be formed to set in motion an effort to find new uses for the St. John’s Episcopal Church. The effort will benefit from the technical expertise of representatives from Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia agency that works with communities to identify creative ways to help bring historic churches back into active use.

St. John’s, which was first used in October 1852, was a religious cornerstone for the Muscle Shoals community until regular services ceased in 1955. But each year the church’s doors open in November for an All Saints’ Day service.

Tom Osborne and Ninon Parker believe the church is a community asset that is just not being utilized.

“It means a lot to so many people on so many levels,” Parker said of the church. “It’s not only a landmark, but a very sacred, spiritual place. People from all walks of life have an affection for it. When people visit St. John’s, they’re usually very moved by the experience.”

That affection for the old church is the element community leaders hope will become the drawstring that pulls citizens together for a common cause.

The advisory team will work with officials from Partners for Sacred Places to select a location for a two-day community workshop later in the year. Advisory team members will reach out to about five dozen Muscle Shoals leaders, inviting them to be a part of the discussions.

They’ll spend their time talking about possible ways that families and organizations could use the church — ways to reconnect the church to residents and thus make it a more vital part of the life of the city.

It’s an exciting development for those groups like the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area that struggle to maintain the church strictly from donations received. Hopefully, some of the ideas generated in the workshop will produce additional revenue streams that can be used to help preserve this historic building.

It’s so easy in our fast-paced world to focus our attention on the future without much consideration for the past. But efforts such as these help balance our perspectives by forcing us to slow down long enough to look back in time. Those glances over our shoulders can help emphasize the significance of the things that shaped our communities, and convince us that an old church building is much more than stacks of lumber.

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