Jim Pennington can always offer conversation — for people interested in words.
As one of four volunteers who staff the Christian Science Reading Room at 136 State St., Pennington welcomes all visitors. Some are people who want to read and relax for a little while. Others may be looking for a warm place on a cold day.
“I think without it, Christian Science would not be known to the community,” said Pennington, 72, a former General Electric Co. automation engineer who lives in Niskayuna. “This is a form of outreach, but it’s very low key. I think many people know about us simply because they ride the bus to Albany.... A person riding the bus could not help but see the name. Likewise, the bus coming back from Albany.”
Bus riders and sidewalk walkers can’t miss the large Christian Science sign on the ground floor of the three-story, red brick building between South Church and South Ferry streets. Messages promising comfort and peace are in the large front windows. So are daily news briefs from the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.
20 years At current site
The Christian Scientists have maintained a reading room in downtown Schenectady since 1943. Church representatives have been based inside their current location, situated across the street from an abandoned parking lot and a KFC restaurant, for the past 20 years. Pennington said the group has also staffed Christian Science sites at State and Broadway and in a small location across from Schenectady’s City Hall.
“We’ve had people come in and say, ‘I’ve seen your place for years, always wondered who you are,’ so we have a long chat,” Pennington said.
A 63-year-old Schenectady man, who declined to give his name, talked to Pennington on a recent Wednesday morning. “It’s relaxing, a nice peaceful environment,” he said. “I find myself at peace with myself and with God by coming here.”
People frequently ask about the Christian Science faith. Reference sources say the Church of Christ, Scientist, a Protestant denomination, first received a state charter in Massachusetts in 1879. Church members follow the teachings and experiences of Mary Baker Eddy, who practiced and taught spiritual healing.
“We view ourselves as a Christian denomination, which relies on the Bible,” Pennington said. “It is a lay church, there is no clergy. It is probably not so unlike the early Christian church in America, going back to Pilgrim days, when the number of clergy was so few. Did the Puritans ... escaping their persecution, stop worshipping God? No, they worshipped in their homes.”
“As Christian Scientists,” Pennington also said, “we carry on the message of the founder. It’s a reliance on God.”
The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Schenectady was chartered on March 6, 1899. The corner stone for the present church at 1215 Union St. was laid in May 1924 and the completed building dedicated on February 9, 1964.
The reading room is simply furnished. Blue-grey linoleum covers the floor, and three red-cushioned wooden chairs, a table lamp and a small round table fill a front corner. A small shelf full of books stands on the opposite side of the room. A kitchen is available, but Pennington said it is never used. A private reading room is located in the back of the building.
Literature is the main attraction.
“We are a specialty library,” Pennington said. “Public libraries, as a rule, only keep books that are in demand by their public. In other words, there’s no space for long-term retention of first editions. College libraries frequently do keep classical pieces. We are a public space, not like a college library, which has available every piece of literature that was ever written about Christian Science.”
Biographies of notable Christian Scientists, collections of the Christian Science Sentinel magazine and histories of the Christian Science movement are available for people who want to read a few pages or a few chapters. “Blessings of Forgiveness — Quotations from Mary Baker Eddy” is here. So is “The Story of Christian Science Wartime Activities” and “Living Christian Science.” Printed Bible lessons are also available.
A place for reflection
The reading room, Pennington said, can be used as a place for reflection.
“It’s not a religious bookstore, it’s not a chapel,” he said. “I would say it’s more like a reserved book room of a library which does not, by its charter, lose its volumes. We don’t discard the volumes that we have; there’s a small lending library, but that’s for those who beg us to take something home. We prefer not to lend first editions.”
Every Christian Science church, Pennington added, is required to have a reading room.
“Some churches staff a shared reading room, some churches maintain reading rooms in their own churches — I don’t particularly like that,” Pennington said. “That makes it more denominational. I would prefer to see it on a main street. I guess you could say we view ourselves as providing a public service.”
Someone visits every day. Pennington said days without curious or studious people are rare.