Brian Zhang, Contributing Photographer

On Saturday, 950 Chapel St. — home to the Christian Science Reading Room — greeted homeless visitors with plates of dessert, musical podcasts and literature recognizing Black leaders and Christian scientists.

A celebration of Black History Month, the event was one among many that the reading room has heralded. Beginning in March 2020, the Christian Science Reading Room, which is a direct physical extension of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, closed for a year and a half during the pandemic, before reopening in late fall of 2021. Since then, it has offered a variety of resources and services to all members of the public. The Mother Church in Boston, Massachusetts created these spaces as a means of giving communities access to quiet study, self-discovery and books.

“I used to come here when I was first learning about Christian Science,” said Shelby Michaels, who was passing out articles about Melba Pattillo Beals, a member of The Little Rock Nine. “The reading room was such a wonderful place to me. It was so welcoming and I learned so much about spirituality — it’s a place of self-discovery where you come in … ask questions, … sit and relax… and find your way.”

Last year, Michaels was a victim of domestic violence, and since returning to New Haven in November, she has been living in Columbus House — where she was offered a job by the church to manage the reading room. Her personal experiences exploring Christian science and grappling with homelessness play a pivotal role in the programming she hopes to implement and expand upon. 

In addition to the bookstore, conversation lounge, study room and children’s section of the reading room, Michaels plans to “give people a fun creative outlet to spirituality” by starting recreational programs that offer more interactive, hands-on experiences. Currently, the reading room supports a Bible study group on Mondays, an art group on Wednesdays and a jewelry group on Saturdays. The Saturday before Valentine’s Day, she hosted a holiday show and party, where New Haveners enjoyed snacks and art displays while celebrating the intersections of love, religion and spirituality. 

Wendy LaFogg, a local and guest, was making friendship bracelets during this past Saturday’s jewelry session. “This is my first time ever being here and so far, I’m very wowed,” she said, emphasizing that the reading room welcomes residents of all backgrounds and religious affiliations. 

From a couch, Rina Nimon, LaFogg’s roommate at Fellowship Place and the founder of Fellowship Book Club, echoed LaFogg’s comment on the atmosphere’s tranquility and “liberation” from the toils and business of everyday life. 

“I like to stay relaxed, and sometimes I read books,” Nimon said. “[The reading room] is subdued and it is really nice.”

Nimon explained that there were times when she had negative experiences with spirituality — but that coming to the reading room and speaking with its staff has helped her find healing. One day, she and Michaels hope to start a spirituality group at Fellowship, where members can hold difficult conversations about spirituality and share strategies to move forward together. 

Despite serving all members of the public, the reading room has resources tailored specifically to the homeless community, which suffers from high levels of incarceration and addiction. Taking advantage of the free wifi and journal subscriptions in the room, visitors can browse articles on how to overcome addiction and seek different forms of therapy, as well as work with staff members to get connected with more resources.

Sustaining these projects is not without its challenges, however. Michaels, who donated some of her own crafts supplies and literature, mentioned that she is still in the process of securing adequate funding for program development and outreach. As a result, it has been difficult for Michaels to “spread the word” about the services offered here — and reach the homeless and other members of the community that need these services the most. Once the reading room has more visitors, she wants to start a Sunday school for children interested in learning more about what it means to be a Christian scientist. According to Michaels, these challenges have been exacerbated due to the enduring pandemic, with social distancing guidelines making people more hesitant to step foot in public spaces.

Nonetheless, “with all the sadness going around in the world, there’s still a lot of love and a lot of joy to go around — to give,” LaFogg said. 

The Christian Science Reading Room is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!