When Berliners Piet and Ulrike Jonas travel abroad, they head into local churches to gawk at stained glass windows, ponder over ornate altar pieces, and discern the meaning of devotional art.
“It is a way for us to get to know the place,” said Piet, “to begin to understand its history and the people who lived there.”
With church visits featuring so prominently in their vacations, Piet and Ulrike wondered if they might start doing the same in their home city.
And so, one-by-one, they began to look in on Berlin’s churches. What started as a hobby quickly turned into a goal-oriented project: to visit every church in Berlin.
Alle Kirchen Berlins was born.
According to their website, their project is simple. “We want to see all the churches in Berlin from the inside,” they wrote. According to their count, that means visiting some 450 locations. As of January 2022, they were at number 381.
The project, however, is not explicitly religious in nature. Nor is it specifically historical, architectural, or social. Instead, Piet and Ulrike said it’s about getting to know Berlin.
Along the way, they are encountering the city’s diversity and development, it’s eclecticism and surprising spiritual effervescence.
“One would not think that Berlin is an especially religious city,” said Ulrike, “and yet we are finding out just how important religion has been and still is.
More than showcasing some of the most remarkable, interesting, or site-seeable places of worship, Alle Kirchen Berlins provides insight into how we understand and negotiate what counts as religion. Moreover, the project highlights how our encounter with religion is part of the way in which contemporary societies — and cities — organize and understand themselves.
Specifically, Piet and Ulrike’s project highlights how city dwellers determine what counts as sacred and secular, how immigration has long been a part of shaping urban religious expressions, and how the notion of religion and the notion of a city are entangled with one another, the one shaping the other and vice versa.
If you search the categories on the Alle Kirchen Berlins site, you’ll find churches organized by shape and size, district and denomination. Amidst the list is one class that might catch the eye: Profaniert.
Literally meaning “profaned,” this category refers to those churches that have been decommissioned as sacred spaces.
Among Piet and Ulrike’s profaned finds are the former New Apostolic Church in Weissensee, converted into a modern studio. There’s also the brutalist, concrete St. Agnes Church in Kreuzberg, now used as an art gallery.
Sociologists Émile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade conceived of categories like sacred and profane to draw a distinction between that which they considered transcendent or awe-inspiring on the one hand and banal, utilitarian, and temporal on the other. Paramount for both was the distinction found in peoples’ attitudes and behavior toward certain objects, people, and places. These categories continue to shape the way we view the world and how we distinguish between that which might be deemed holy and worldly, heavenly and temporal, religious and secular.
And yet, Piet and Ulrike’s project shows how such categories are not as fixed as we might at first assume.
Take, for example, the St. Agnes Church cum gallery. Made profane by ritual, it is now used to host art exhibitions and installations. Though deemed non-religious, it is still set aside for special use, its architecture imbuing the space with an aura of reverence. Where once visitors knelt, lit candles, prayed, and pondered the divine in stained glass windows, now they silently meditate and circle around pieces of art in an atmosphere of adoration.
Even though the church building was shorn of the category of religion through its profanation, art historian Wendy Shaw wrote how rituals in museums and galleries like “silence, circumambulation, and meditation — perpetuate a sacral aura in the episteme of knowledge rather than faith.
“Art gains secular sacrality through its disembodiment from the subject,” she wrote — in this case, an explicit making profane of that which was made religious.
Thus, the performances of praise at St. Agnes the art gallery hints at the ways in which we construct the very categories religious and secular in the modern city. While we may not be living in an explicitly enchanted world per se, our notions of profanity, secularism, and the like are ideologies that restrict and prescript in their own ways, showing us how to interact with space and place, the objects contained therein and the people we encounter along the way.
Religion on the move.
A cosmopolitan city, Berlin offers a figurate smorgasbord of flotsam and jetsam left behind by waves of immigration and movement that have lapped upon its shores over the last century and a half.
"The history of Berlin is a history of its immigrants," wrote Tobias Allers in his book Neuberliner, a history of migration in Berlin from the Middle Ages to today. In connection with his book, the local historian offers city tours on Berlin's migration history, from French Huguenots and Eastern European Jews to more recent newcomers like Turks and Syrians.
Each group is different and has left their own mark on Berlin and its religious character. The city itself, said Allers, would not be what it is today without the influx of people that came from beyond Berlin’s borders over the centuries.
That impact is evident in Piet and Ulrike’s project as well. From them stumbling across St. Konstantin and Helene Orthodox Church amid a Russian cemetery in Tegel to coming upon an African community gathering in St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Charlottenburg or discovering the Brazil-based Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) in the New Nazareth Church in Wedding, Berlin’s rich and varied migrant history is evident as they make their way across the city.
The evidence also lies beyond the bounds of Piet and Ulrike’s explorations. Although small groups of Nigerian migrants meeting in a storage container near Berlin’s Südkreuz train station or a Spanish-language Pentecostal church gathering on the shores of the Schlachtensee for summer baptisms may not qualify for the Alle Kirchen Berlins site, they nonetheless testify to Berlin’s ongoing immigrant character and the importance of both local presences and global flows in the makeup of its religious contours.
Entangled stories of religious (in)visibility and re-enchantment?
Such “entangled stories of religious (in)visibility and re-enchantment, sacred place and spatial trajectories,” wrote David Garbin and Anna Strhan in their introduction to Religion and the Global City, speak to the ongoing importance of religion in the shaping of space and place in the modern city.
Look no further than the ways in which Berlin’s churches integrate aspects of the city’s history into their very architecture and accoutrements and, in turn, how that architecture has come to influence more recent expressions of the city’s spirituality.
Many historical places of worship in Berlin and surrounding Brandenburg are made of brick, reflecting long-held local building traditions. Others reflect more poignant moments in history, whether that’s the bombed-out remnants of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche or the windows of the Twelve Apostles Church in Schöneberg, made up of discarded gin bottles to replace stained glass destroyed during the Second World War. Incidentally, the “Gin Church” is also constructed of red backstein (brick).
What once was architectural convention is now the base material for spiritual inspiration in one of the city’s more recent constructions: the Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER). Reflecting the city’s diversity and the broad backgrounds of visitors making their way through its terminals, BER’s “Room of Silence” is meant to serve as an “equal retreat for people from a wide range of cultures and religions.”But the designers not only attempted to make the room a universal space, but hyper-local as well.
According to GMP Architekten, the steeped vaulted ceilings of the prayer room are made of black-fired bricks to not only reflect the long tradition of using backstein in Berlin’s places of worship, but to create an “unmistakable lively surface” and recall the very “origins of humankind.”
Though Piet and Ulrike have yet to visit the BER’s chapel or “Room of Silence” — and may not, depending on their preference — it is a further example of how a simple project like visiting all of Berlin’s churches can reveal how religion is embedded in multiple layers of Berlin’s social, spatial, and spiritual landscapes.
Of course, what is true in Berlin should lead us to consider urban geographies closer to home. Like Piet and Ulrike before us, perhaps we can begin to question the very categories we’ve created to delineate between religious and secular space and place, whether on the scale of our own cities or at the level of the individual church in our corner of the globe.
*Want your question(s) about religion answered? Connect with Ken on Twitter: @kchitwood.
4/29/2022 1:12:57 PM