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Monday, August 9, 2010

Faith as Landscape in Laramie, WY

Laramie By Faith
With the exception of the Interstate, when you drive into Laramie, Wyoming from any other direction, the first thing you will probably see cresting over the horizon is a church steeple pointing to the heavens.  It's St. Matthew's, the Episcopal church which sits like a beacon on the corner of 3rd and Ivinson.  Its undressed sandstone tower and red archway doors basically define the whole of downtown Laramie.  A lot of the locals use it as a navigation point for newcomers: "Turn left at the big church there, that's Ivinson Avenue..."

Landscape was something I really started thinking about this time when I was in Laramie.  We talk about Laramie as an outlaw town in the popular imagination-- you know, Butch Cassidy, Big Steve Long, the territorial prison and all that-- but the strongest visual cue for that past is the territorial prison and its Wild West reenactments, and it's tucked away in West Laramie.  You can't see it until you get past the overpass at Snowy Range Road.  That might be the image you get in your head if you've never been here, but when you stand in the very heart of the old Downtown and turn your face to the hills, you get a very different impression.  This is a landscape dominated by faith, and now that I see this, it's no wonder that Tectonic Theater would have focused on faith as a major player in the Laramie drama.  Tectonic is very aware of Laramie's landscape, I have always thought-- and if they were, the landscape of faith is a part of Laramie's topography you simply cannot ignore... 

Laramie By Night
This is a little evangelical Lutheran church, lit up at night.
On my last couple of days in Laramie, I had a bit of a wild hare and decided to take pictures of some of the local churches-- some by day, some by night-- just for something to do.  I started Downtown (mostly because I could walk around with a camera on a tripod at night and people wouldn't get weirded out) and then into some of the neighborhoods surrounding.  And the moment you start doing this, you start to realize just how many churches there are per capita in a town of 27,000.  Not just Christian churches, either-- the Islamic association in Laramie now has its own little stucco building, its once Christian stained glass windows now replaced with pretty geometric latticework panes.  They are a part of the landscape now as well. 

You know, one of the the first thing that struck me when I was doing this was that you can't swing a cat without hitting a Baptist church anymore.  Everywhere I looked I saw a lot more little white buildings with different associations, such as Independent, Southern, Missionary, American and whatnot, and (with the exception of First Baptist) are extremely small affairs.  Even if you smooshed all these congregations together I still don't think you'd outnumber the Laramie Catholics or Presbyterians, but they are a presence in the town nonetheless.  This surprised me because I don't really remember as many back then as I'm seeing now.  I know that at least one was the result of a church split, but all these others?  Am I simply not remembering correctly because my personal involvement was only limited to a couple of congregations in town?  That bears some thinking about.

Laramie By Faith
Every neighborhood I passed through in town had a church in its center, almost acting as the hub around which the rest of the area defined itself.  These ranged from the tiny white mission-house church just off to one side of Boswell Drive where the congregation sings over the sound of the Interstate, to the dark brick First Baptist Church north of campus to the enormous LDS church in the posh neighborhood in the northeast of town which some of us nicknamed "The Bellagio" when I lived there.  Not far from campus, the Methodist church sits to the edge of a public park, its peaked sanctuary looking like the keel of an upturned boat.  Actually, that was one of its nicknames back when I was in college-- the "Disciple Ship."  That's what some of the youth group members there used to call it, anyway. 

Churches of Laramie
But that's something else I found interesting this time around: Laramie's landscape is heavily defined by the university, of course, but it's the churches that make the town distinctive.  The Downtown area, for instance, is dominated by St. Matthews, which takes up an entire city block.  On the other side of the rail yard is a much smaller church, but equally important for defining the landscape.  This one is the tallest building in the original West Laramie district (and I think it's an Apostolic church, but I'm not sure.)

If you're looking for the old buildings, the ones with character which are left over from the golden age of Laramie's past, there aren't that many left.  A few exceptions aside, those old storefronts in the original Downtown district aren't going to be too much earlier than 1900.   So, if you look around for those buildings which dominate the skyline, which tend to give Laramie its quaint, old character, it wouldn't be surprising if you settle on Laramie's churches.  They're some of the oldest structures left in town, and they specifically hearken back to the past in terms of their architecture.  Through the windows of a church, Laramie looks like a town defined by, and characterized by, the faith of its residents. 

The Newman Center, UW
St. Paul's Newman Center, UW campus
Should it surprise me, then, that a group of east-coast actors should arrive in Laramie, Wyoming to put together a play and settle on religious conflict as one of their main themes for exploring anti-gay prejudice?  Maybe it shouldn't-- not necessarily because of their preconceived notions about the religious origins of homophobia, but because of the face that Laramie herself shows to the newcomer: an older town, traditional-minded, with a skyline heavily painted in the colors of faith.


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