Report from Orlando: The Spirit Rocks On


By Richard Reep

“In hard times, people turn to God or alcohol” jokes Bud Johnson of Constructwire, a database that tracks planning and construction projects nationwide. Johnson, 50, is an industry veteran and has never seen a recession like this in his career. “This is an exceptionally broad-based downturn,” he says, “and Orlando has been hit harder than most in the South, what with your only real industries being housing and tourism.” Both industries have been trapped like mammoths in a glacier as the credit market stays stubbornly frozen in a modern banking Ice Age.

At the bottom of the glacier, however, the meltwater continues to flow, and bars and liquor stores seem to be thriving. With 10 new ABC stores open this year, this privately held Orlando-based liquor retailer is doing just fine, enabling many of us to stay sane, if not sober, while waiting for The Recovery. The alchoholic spirits are not the only mood-shifting business doing well in these hard times. Sacred space may not be exactly booming, but religious buildings are being built at a more comfortable pace than nearly any other building type in Central Florida.

“Ecclesiastical architecture is falling at a rate close to that of a paper airplane, while my other building types have the glide ratio of a rock,” says Peter Kosinski, the architect responsible for the renovation of St. James Cathedral in downtown Orlando. With most other projects on hold, including a share of churches, Kosinski Architecture has still seen most of his religious work proceed, despite the Great Recession. Funding largely comes from donations, and for secular not-for-profits cultural outfits like United Arts, giving has evaporated. Spiritual needs, however, seem to be drawing a steady stream of money to expand or add to temples, churches, synagogues, and other sacred spaces to meet a growing demand in the Central Florida area.

If the credit Ice Age is a part of a great karmatic rebalancing, it was long overdue and has hit especially hard in our overheated, consumer-driven culture. The cynics, who knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing, drove sacred space largely underground as new subdivisions engorged Orlando with not a square inch reserved for community worship. Religious uses simply don’t fit the profit model of late capitalism, and while our older neighborhoods are dotted with small, walk-to churches, not a cross can be found in the landscape of most newer developments. To the development industry, collective religious worship represents someone else’s unprofitable land sale.

Cobbling together 15 or 20 acres therefore became a new art form for many evangelical pastors as the late 20th century saw the rise of the megachurch. These huge, Sunday-traffic-nightmares offer sophisticated audio/visual Christian themed entertainment in an arena setting, a perfect way for many to fulfill their spiritual needs. Others, stuck in these vast residential tracts devoid of sacred space, use the house-church method, gathering in groups of 8 or 10 at a member’s residence, taking heart in what Pope Gregory the Great (an early leader) stated: “The real altar of God is the mind and the heart of the just.” And some do both.

Either way, the religious needs of the people of Central Florida are expanding, and the sanctuaries, temples, synagogues, and mosques are noticeably busier. The 2-year-old Guang Ming Temple, housing the local Renzai Humanist Buddhists, is experiencing a surge in attendance locally. Temple Director Chueh Fan confirms that there is a strong need for a communal spiritual facility. “We feel the hardship of people right now,” she states. “Although the Asian community here is stable, we have been growing over the last 2 years. And we are a middle-sized temple; there are some much bigger in other states.” Guang Ming offers Dharma classes in Spanish, English, Vietnamese and Chinese, and class enrolment is growing quickly.

Other clerics, such as Reverend Reginald Dunston, also see a need for more religious-based education, and are planning new schools as well as sanctuaries. “Agape Word Ministry is planning a bible-based school,” he explains, “as an alternative to the schools in the area.” Other pastors, such as Jeff Cox of Salem Lutheran Church in Bay Hill, agree that it is important to expand their offerings to include a religious-based education. Education is the one tangible asset that a community is willing to purchase from a house of worship, and while most religions in America struggle for relevance, their schools remain in demand.

Christianity, exploding in a pluralism not seen since the Reformation, is especially sensitive to its status as the dominant American religion. While over 4,000 new churches open nationwide annually, another 3,700 close, according to David T. Olson in his 2008 book “The American Church in Crisis.” This is near status quo, despite population growth, suggesting a shift away from collective religious worship for many. Hispanics, traditionally more observant, are building megachurches at a far faster clip than non-Hispanics, pointing to a loss of interest in collective Christianity for the majority of the population.

Locally then, the house of worship is entering a phase of experimentation as new forms, such as megachurches, are tried; it is discarded altogether by the house-church movement; and it is growing in some religions such as Buddhism, with their new temple, and Judaism, with the construction of the new JCC South Campus on Apopka Vineland Road. The mainline Christian denominations that dominate downtown’s skyline serve less and less as a model for new buildings as malls are repurposed, warehouse buildings are adapted, and more novel programs and designs are tried.

Hindu, Jain, and Muslim traditions are also represented in Orlando, and generally playing to full houses. The Masjid Al-Haqq mosque on West Central Boulevard on a Friday afternoon was brimming full, with more worshippers arriving by car and by foot. Collective spiritual worship of all forms is clearly a rising force within Orlando, and space on pews, benches, chairs and prayer mats are at a premium.

Missing from many lives, crucial to others, religion is at an odd crossing in Central Florida’s history. To balance empty pocketbooks, some people are filling their cups with booze but others are also imbibing a perhaps long-delayed return to spirituality. This return, however, is marked by a mosaic of multiple religions, rather than a return to the few mainstream denominations that characterized early Orlando’s growth. If Bud Johnson is right, and this surge in spirituality lasts through The Recovery, Orlando will see a boom in new religious architecture that might make up for lost time, creating a revival in sacred space in the Central Florida landscape.

Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.