The black church at a crossroads: Staying alive in the city

Black churches represent the fourth largest religious group of congregations in America, behind only Catholic and predominantly white mainline and evangelical Protestant churches. Yet they are often as invisible to the majority of Americans as the disproportionately poor communities many serve in the nation’s cities.

Until, perhaps, they are no longer there.

When everyone else left — businesses, the middle class, white churches and synagogues — the black church stayed in the inner city, a symbol of hope and safety and an anchor upon which communities could make revitalization plans.

Now anyone who cares about struggling city neighborhoods needs to pay attention to a major trend unfolding across urban America. Some large black churches are moving out, and many more may follow.

Scholars call it “the suburbanization” of the black church. One by one, successful black churches are establishing sanctuaries in the suburbs close to where their middle- and upper-class members now live.

In some cases, prominent city congregations are setting up second churches in the suburbs, evoking fears it will only be a matter of time before the city congregation closes or is reduced to insignificance.

What is straining the centuries-old bond – an unspoken promise to lift up the next generation -that kept many large black churches in the city are t he same economic and demographic forces that led predominantly white churches and synagogues to flee to the suburbs. Moving where your members are, and keeping your members happy with the modern facilities and programs many church shoppers have come to expect, is seen as a matter of long-term survival and growth.

“There is a definite trend toward black churches moving to the suburbs,“ said Lawrence Mamiya, chairman of the religion department at Vassar College. “Upwardly mobile blacks and black pastors are moving to the suburbs.”

In the last year, I have done extensive interviews with pastors, researchers and scholars on the black church, while also spending several months with the people of Emmanuel Baptist Church, a historic congregation in a struggling area of Cleveland.

Representative of the issues many prominent urban churches face, Emanuel was founded in 1916 in what was then mostly a white neighborhood bordering on residential areas closed to blacks. The church would be destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1939, the first Cleveland church to be constructed by black contractors, members say. An education wing was added in 1957, when the sanctuary was so full ushers had to set up chairs in the aisles.

Today, the Sunday crowd is less than a third of what it once was. Most members long ago moved to safer neighborhoods with better schools farther out. But a faithful remnant returns throughout the week for worship, service and fellowship. Led by a committed young pastor, the congregation is trying to revive both the church and the surrounding neighborhood.

Yet its future, like those of historic black churches in similar neighborhoods throughout the country, is uncertain.

The black church faces a defining moment: Can it transcend economic and social pressures to maintain its historic commitment to be present among those most in need?

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A new age

Other religious groups have tried – and failed.

Even one of the last holdouts, the Catholic Church, which nurtured generations of immigrants and the poor in the nation’s cities, in recent years has ordered mass closings of city parishes and schools it decided it can no longer afford to keep open.

Demographics, competition and a growing consumer mentality toward religion are among several forces leading black churches to consider moving out of the city.

Fewer people want to travel long distances back to a city neighborhood that offers little meaning to their children when nearby suburban megachurches offer one-stop shopping for a family’s spiritual needs.

Suburban sites offer land for expansion and facilities that can be built to provide the comfortable seating, abundant parking and state-of-the art audio and visual offerings some religious consumers have come to expect. They also can offer a fresh environment that makes it easier to relax dress codes and offer contemporary music to be relevant to younger generations.

In contrast, many urban churches face the limitations of older, traditional facilities beloved by graying memberships committed to the memories and traditions of an earlier time.

Advocates of suburban sanctuaries say by building new churches closer to where their members are they are heeding the gospel call to expand their ministries, meeting the needs of new populations who have the same need for salvation as city residents.

The first obligation of the church is “soul winning,” says the Rev. R.A. Vernon of The Word Church, a megachurch in the Cleveland suburb of Warrensville Heights.

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Keeping faith

As long as blacks are living there, there always will be black churches in the city.

Walk down some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in cities from Los Angeles to Detroit to Baltimore and there amid the fast food restaurants, barbershops, bars and funeral homes are plenty of churches. In the case of Emmanuel, there are more than 30 churches within a 10-block radius.

What is of concern are the future of those large churches that continue, through tradition, charismatic pastors and a commitment to social justice, to unite the suburban and urban black populations, to each week bring some of the best and the brightest in the black community into neighborhoods where others are still struggling.

These are the churches with the resources to offer safe day care, computer training and mentoring for youth and social services from food and clothing ministries to credit unions that are an alternative to payday loan shops that prey on the poor. They are the churches that theaters and businesses are willing to be next to and urban planners look for in locating parks and public buildings to spur redevelopment. Some churches will even sponsor affordable housing complexes next door.

These churches have stayed behind as part of a tradition in the black church that demands solidarity with those left behind. They offer hope for residents raising children and caring for their property amid abandoned lots and the broken glass littering sidewalks from the windows of empty factories.

The question — for how much longer? — is a critical one.

Take churches like Emmanuel Baptist away, says Cleveland Councilwoman Mamie Mitchell, and her neighborhood “would be desolate. It would be without faith, without hope.”

Next column: The trend no one wants to talk about: Race, racism and the changing expectations among blacks and whites of what has been called the most segregated institution in American society. What is the role of the black church in the age of Obama?


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