The Vital Role of the "Third Place"
According to author and professor Ray Oldenburg, we need places outside of home or work where we can go on a regular basis to relax with good company. It is in these public gathering places--"third places," a term coined by Oldenburg--that human relationships flourish and produce the fruit of community.
Larry Bourgeois (MAT '79) has been devoted, since his time at Fuller 30 years ago, to the concept of third places. Even before Oldenburg published his books exploring great American third places, Bourgeois was deeply involved in facilitating these kinds of spaces to meet the social and spiritual needs of the community. "It became clear to me that hospitable gathering places where people shared their lives and spoke openly about brokenness and healing were great good places of the heart and spirit," notes Bourgeois in a piece written for one of Oldenburg's books. There is a deep need for such places, he says, because of the social alienation and longing for authentic community that characterize today's society.
As a student in the 1970s, Bourgeois helped birth a life-giving third place on Fuller's campus in the form of a café, using the skills he had acquired from years of working in the coffee industry. Housed in the Catalyst for many years until the building's recent renovation in 2005, the café was arguably the central point of many students' social interactions at Fuller and is fondly remembered by alumni/ae who visit the campus.
For Bourgeois, providing a place to gather purposefully is vital--gathering with the larger intention of reflecting, abiding, and contemplating together--not necessarily to accomplish a task or work agenda. He is director of Pilgrim Place at Old St. George, which until recently was a third place housed in a former Catholic church and piece of architectural history located adjacent to the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. Through the project, he insured that his current community not only preserved a piece of history, but also created a space in which its diverse members "could relate to one another in a myriad of ways--as a kind of community center, conference center, and spiritual center," Bourgeois says.
Bourgeois contributed a chapter to the book Celebrating the Third Place (edited by Ray Oldenburg), a work being widely discussed in urban planning and community development classes as well as emergent church settings. In the chapter, Bourgeois comments about the Old St. George project:
From the church's original institutional faith, Roman Catholicism, we have moved to a "small c" catholicism; a far more ecumenical and inclusive place. We are host to a myriad of programs and events that keep Old St. George busy and filled with people, but the heart of our third place lies in the Pilgrim Place coffeehouse...in dedication to those who are self-consciously seeking their spiritual way.
Bourgeois serves as the Cincinnati Director of Resources in Higher Education for the Coalition for Christian Outreach--and in this role, is collaborating on establishing many intriguing third places, working with campus ministries and Christian organizations to offer these ways for the entire community to connect and commune. On a typical afternoon at one of these third places--often in a coffeehouse or bookstore--students, businessmen and women, street people, folks from the neighborhood, and coffee connoisseurs converge on the same space to spend time alone or talk with others. The nature of the third place is one where any or all of these people can meet and strike up conversation that, more often than not, probes the deepest issues of life. "Many progressive church renewal thinkers who take social trends seriously," says Bourgeois, "are convinced that third place ministry models such as these are a critical component of authentic dialogue with this generation, especially when they embrace a full range of artistic and cultural inclusiveness."
At the Rohs St. Café, for example--a Pilgrim Place collaboration--Bourgeois recently encountered a college student working on a philosophy paper and contemplating the question of the level of interaction between spirit and matter. Talking together, "we enlarged the subject to get at the theological heart of the matter and spiritual life question within the philosophical search," says Bourgeois. "The discussion of the assignment itself was enlarged to the personal existential question of why the student decided on pursuing such a discipline as the 'love of wisdom.'" Bourgeois was able to introduce the student to new questions about the spiritual and material, and they both left the conversation with a better appreciation for the discussion.
That is the purpose of Pilgrim Places--to provide sacred spaces that attract and nourish the rich diversity of people who seek spiritual, social, and community renewal. Again quoting from his chapter in Celebrating the Third Place, Bourgeois says:
We are an open mixing place for the general public, but we are strongly committed to bringing together people who may not normally spend time together in the hope that they will become friends, seeking deeper relationships with each other and with the community. A sign I once saw in an old café window proclaimed, "There are no strangers here, just friends who haven't met," and that pretty much captures what we're about.
Bourgeois continues to share his insights by giving workshops on third places and public ministries, and by writing about practical theologies for third places--working with emerging church leaders in his area who recognize the need to build community through personal relationships. The idea is foundational for those who want to see the gospel encounter people in the daily interactions of life. "At the base of all effective Christian communication," Bourgeois emphasizes, "are authentic conversations that somehow reveal the splendor of the ordinary, the sacred in the daily routine--and as such, create more opportunities for deep and transforming theological reflection and spiritual growth."
The development of the "third place" is a continuing conversation with great ministry significance, Bourgeois firmly believes. "Thirty years from now," he says, "this simple idea of hospitality and authentic social gathering may well be at the core of the church's life."
Those interested in the concept of third places may contact Bourgeois at Larry.Bourgeois@osg.org.