In Changing Neighborhoods, Black Churches Face an Identity Crisis

Fifty years after "white flight," a new population shift is emptying the pews of African American congregations. 

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The 2012 H Street Festival shows off the new identity of a D.C. neighborhood. Meanwhile, the area's once-thriving black churches are struggling to survive. (tbridge/Flickr)

The unmistakable boom of an indie bass can be heard coming from the Rock n Roll Hotel. The scent of seasoned mussels and fresh-baked sour cherry pie emanates from either side of the street. Cursing the long-awaited street car, residents artfully dodge taxicabs and speeding bikers to get around the plaid-clad, bespectacled foodies waiting patiently outside of Taylor Gourmet and H & Pizza, eager to devour their fried risotto balls or custom-made soy cheese slices.

Walking along H St. NE in Washington, D.C. is a therapeutic exercise in cognitive function and repair. Every few weeks, previously boarded-up storefronts transform into freshly painted establishments aimed at a new generation. What was a relic of the infamous "Dodge City" is the fast becoming the District's foremost hipster haven. But as the neighborhood changes, once-cherished institutions are left hanging in the balance -- the most prominent being the black church.

Today, the black church is in crisis, with scholars claiming that it has lost its prophetic and progressive influence. But the black church has also been confronted with a more visceral change: the shifting demographics around the urban black "space," caused in part by people like me.

In cities across America, a new population is moving to neighborhoods formerly occupied by working-class African Americans. Property developers, eager to take advantage of the modest rent, are tearing down buildings to make way for trendy eateries and luxury condominiums to fit the needs of millennials: young, educated individuals, most of whom reside briefly in a given urban area before choosing to settle elsewhere.

This recent physical and cultural transformation has been endlessly debated. According to Neil Smith, a professor of anthropology and geography at the City University of New York Graduate Center, gentrification has changed enormously since the '70s and '80s. "It's no longer just about housing," he told the New York Times. "It's really a systematic class-remaking of city neighborhoods. It's driven by many of the same forces, especially the profitable use of land. But it's about creating entire environments: employment, recreation, environmental conditions."

In Brooklyn's Williamsburg and Greenpoint, for instance, the proportion of residents holding graduate degrees quadrupled to 12 percent from 1990. At the same time, the retail focus has shifted from offering products to creating experiences. "In this struggle," he says, "the interests of private capital rarely lose."

In the nation's capital, black churches have refused to budge amid this accelerated gentrification process, even as they see their communities (and influence) slowly wane. For the first time, African Americans are no longer D.C.'s major racial or ethnic group. Select D.C. neighborhoods are experiencing a verifiable identity crisis, with the black church at the helm. Changing demographics are a daunting challenge for an institution that used to occupy an integral role in the community -- serving as the center of stability and camaraderie, offering potlucks and after-school care along with religious services. To understand this struggle is to understand the changing role of the black church in the American narrative, and what vulnerable communities stand to lose if it disappears.

***

When video footage came to light of Reverend Jeremiah Wright calling on African Americans to say "God damn America" instead of "God bless America," many worried that it signaled the end for Senator Barack Obama, then the leading candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, and an active parishioner of Wright's church for 20 years. What followed was a media firestorm, one that thrust the black church under an intense spotlight it had not faced since the Civil Rights era. Under enormous pressure, Barack Obama came to explain his relationship with Wright and his congregation:

Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming, and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

When Obama said "black churches," he was referring to a highly decentralized collection of seven major black Protestant denominations: the National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention of America, the Progressive National Convention, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Church of God in Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Each of these denominations grew out of the antebellum South, dating back to a time when Methodists and Baptists made concerted efforts to convert slaves to Christianity. Anglican ministers had made similar attempts, but to little avail. Select white owners allowed the enslaved to worship in white churches, where they were segregated in the back or on the balconies and made to listen to messages of strict obedience. The Methodists and Baptists changed all that, recasting their evangelism for a black audience. Some Methodists even licensed black men to preach, and many of the new black ministers framed Bible stories in ways that made them newly relevant to black audiences -- particularly the Exodus theme of liberation from bondage. Some black preachers even succeeded in establishing churches in the South, though they encountered harassment. When the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century caused many Americans, black and white, to get swept up in religious revival, the independence of black churches was curbed by law, and by the white Southern response to slave uprisings and the abolitionist movement.

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Alessandra Ram is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic Video Channel. Her work has also appeared in Foreign Policy.

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