Photo by Olivier Mabelly
April 24, 2019 Faith

The Loss of the Sacred

Written by: Rylee McCallin


If you have been paying attention to the news, or been anywhere on the internet recently, you’ve likely heard of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris early last week. People across the globe rallied in response, sharing memories of their visits to the iconic cathedral and sending their love to Paris in this time of need.

Aside from the beautiful architecture, the 13th-century building contained priceless art and artifacts, including an organ that can be traced to 1730. Notre Dame also housed the Holy Crown of Thorns, which Christians believe was worn by Jesus when he was crucified. Fortunately, all the artifacts and holy relics were safely removed from the property before the roof and spire were engulfed in flames.

Though we can take the time to acknowledge the legacy, history, and significant cultural meaning that Notre Dame holds for so many people, Christian and otherwise, we should also take a step back and consider why this particular event garnered such a massive response while the destruction of other sacred and communal resources haven’t.

Al'Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem prior to April 15 fire.

The same day as the Notre Dame fire, a mosque in Jerusalem, Al'Aqsa Mosque, was also the site of a fire. The mosque was built in 1035 AD and is considered the third holiest site in the Islamic faith. Though the fire was much smaller and no one was harmed, the event has so far received considerably less media attention than Notre Dame acquired in just one day.

In another underreported incident earlier this month, three predominantly Black churches in Louisiana were burned down by a 21-year-old white nationalist terrorist. These churches have been part of the local community for more than a century, enduring the evils of the Jim Crow era and continued racial struggles up through the modern day. Though no one was inside the churches at the time of the arson, authorities are charging the man accused of starting the fires with a hate crime.

The comparative outcry over such incidents begs the question: when we collectively mourn the loss or desecration of a sacred site, shouldn’t we disregard who it is sacred to?

For many people, a sacred space is more than a building—or the items contained within it. A sacred place is often something much more grand: It’s the land we love, the history we share, the air we breathe, the water we drink. All the things that give us life are sacred.

In Syria, the battle between The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIS) and government forces have led to Aleppo being severely damaged after ISIS occupied the area. As the largest city in Syria, Aleppo was previously home to thousands of families. Now the war has reduced it to near ruins, with schools, homes, and centuries-old churches, mosques, and palaces destroyed. According to the United Nations, 30 percent of the ancient city has been affected by the conflict.

In 2013, construction crews began destroying an ancient Mayan pyramid in Belize in order to access its limestone to build a road. Once standing nearly 60 feet tall, Nohul is believed to have been a social and agricultural hub for the Mayans—one of the largest ancient empires in the Americas. Its size suggests that the central structure may have housed both tombs and people of distinction. The ancient mounds, once home to an estimated 10,000 Mayans, were meant to be protected by law. Unfortunately, they weren’t.

For many people, a sacred space is more than a building—or the items contained within it. A sacred place is often something much more grand: It’s the land we love, the history we share, the air we breathe, the water we drink. All the things that give us life are sacred.

And if that’s true, perhaps we should mourn as much for Flint, MI as we do for Notre Dame.

In 2014, Flint’s officials switched the water supply for the entire city to a contaminated source, leading to lead poisoning of the city’s residents. The population is largely Black and poor, and while the community’s concerns about the water have garnered news and celebrities’ attention, governmental action has been lacking. Here we are, five years later, and the community is still living without clean water. Are the lives of Flint residents really worth less than a building, even one so spectacular and historically significant as Notre Dame?

In 2016, Native American communities, water protectors, and their allies came from all over the country and the world to stop the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) from passing less than a half-mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Tribal citizens and demonstrators recognized that DAPL had the potential to destroy the main source of drinking water of tens of thousands of people living in the area. Despite their historic protest—which brought Native tribes and allies together on a previously unmatched level and garnered some significant media attention—oil giant Energy Transfer Partners was able to route the pipeline through unceded treaty land, disrupting thousand-year-old burial grounds in the process.

Dakota Access pipeline construction desecrates ancient burial grounds near Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.

In September of 2017, Puerto Rico—also Indigenous land—suffered tremendous damage from Hurricane Maria, the largest Atlantic storm in well over a decade. For weeks, months, and even years after the catastrophe, citizens have been left without power. Already in major debt, Puerto Rico cannot afford to rebuild to its former glory. Businesses are unable to reopen their doors, and 40 percent of the the Puerto Rican people are now living below the poverty line.

In 2018, National Geographic published an article in the magazine’s August issue describing the death of the Great Barrier Reef. With a warmer climate, the oceans have been greatly impacted, causing coral to become bleached. After the death of nearly half of the reef, it is unlikely that it will be able to recover at all. As the earth begins to warm, the effects on wildlife and the environment become more glaringly obvious. More and more frequently, we see the effects of climate change; wildfires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters have become the norm. Perhaps it’s long past time to consider the earth, herself, to be sacred.

Bill Mckibben Tweet

Now, as discussion begins around repairing the world-famous Notre Dame Cathedral, money is pouring in from all over the world. As if the Catholic Church is not the largest, wealthiest institution in the world, several billionaires have pledged the majority of the money toward this effort. There is no shortage of funds when it comes to returning the sacred building to its former glory. While, on the one hand, it may be a worthwhile endeavor, all this funding to a church seems to embody a societal lack of awareness when we see no such consolidated effort toward repairing the humanitarian issues that the world—including our country—are facing every single day.

So as you mourn the loss of a famous church, just remember this: the church will live to see another chapter. Can we say the same for the rest of us? For our sacred spaces, our burial grounds and common heritage? For the very planet we live on?