In Changing Neighborhoods, Black Churches Face an Identity Crisis

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the black church found its political voice in abolition. Former slave Frederick Douglass challenged Christians to confront the debasing institution that was slavery, while ministers and members of the black community organized the Underground Railroad in the North. Following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (which legitimized the Exodus story for many African Americans) and continuing on through Reconstruction, the black church became more organized, rallying around the black preacher as a central figure. In "Of the Faith of the Followers," an essay that appeared in his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois described the preacher as "the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil.'

A century later, still plagued by institutionalized racism and violence, African Americans coalesced into action after the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. Then, in 1955, activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. By the time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became the official face of the struggle, civil rights had gained a clear moral and religious dimension. King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail" (which appeared in The Atlantic under the title "The Negro Is Your Brother") was a response to a group of angry white ministers, a reflection on Christianity and the path to social justice. Again, the crusade was sustained by the Exodus story.

Today, with an electorate still bitterly divided over the issue of race, the black church is arguably losing its power. While "white flight" and the Civil Rights movement galvanized the black community, "black flight" (middle-class African Americans relocating to the suburbs) and the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods across America have put the black church on the path to obsoletion.

In Washington, D.C., these demographic shifts have been particularly fraught. Many neighborhoods are recovering even today from the 1968 riots, a four-day response to Dr. King's assassination. The H-St. corridor saw numerous buildings destroyed during the violence. But even as storefronts remained boarded up, churches continued to thrive. Church members in the area look back wistfully at the many events once sponsored by or held at the church, including potlucks, tutoring sessions to help teens stay in school, Alcohol Anonymous meetings, single-parent funds, and counseling services. Pews were packed every Sunday morning; everybody knew each other by name. Only in the last few years have these churches felt their bases slipping away.


The house where I currently live is owned and managed by a church that relocated to suburban Maryland. Old paintings still hang in the living room from the days when it was used as living quarters for church leaders. Today, the house is occupied by three young people who were attracted by the relatively low rent and youthful culture that have become hallmarks of the neighborhood.

I recently attended a Sunday service at Northeast Holy Trinity Church, a local Baptist church nestled between Union Station and H St., to get a sense of the culture that once permeated my neighborhood. After services, a young boy came up to a woman and asked if she would mind teaching him how to play the drums. The woman, Shenoa Carter, 2nd Assistant Church Clerk, kindly told him she would. Carter is the mother of two sons in the Sunday school and the daughter of an executive officer, and she explained that the church is extremely supportive of families' needs. For example, the church recently hosted a Sunday school retreat at a resort in West Virginia, drawing on the support of a larger federation of Sunday schools to provide scholarships for many families.

Each parishioner with whom I spoke was eager to know what I was writing about, and, more importantly, why I had chosen their church in particular. One of the chairwomen publicly welcomed me during the "announcements" from the pulpit. The resounding message I heard from people was, "What you see is what you get." Despite the enthusiasm, I couldn't help but notice that the church was largely empty that morning: Few besides the ministers, members of the executive board, and their families were in attendance. When I asked if the church used to see higher attendance, few would give me a concrete answer, instead asking politely when I would return.

The Washington Post's Hamil R. Harris reports that since numerous middle-class parishioners have relocated to Prince George's County in Maryland, congregations have either packed up with them, or stayed behind to rebuild what has been lost: relationships. According to Harris, churches along the "nightlife-intensive" H St. and U St. corridors have made efforts to offset lower attendance by attracting passersby. A bi-monthly jazz night is intended to attract recent arrivals, most of whom are young and white. Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church has begun renovations that will enable the church to "grow the congregation"; it has space in its pews for 500 but roughly 100 members.

But not all churches in the area have focused on fostering relationships with their new neighbors. And not many residents seem drawn to the services. More often, the newcomers can be heard complaining that morning services interrupt street parking, or that some churches have made it more difficult for restaurants to obtain liquor licenses.

By and large, black churches in the area are realizing that alliances must be formed if they want to retain their presence in the community. Recently, a petition surfaced via Occupy Our Homes to prevent Bank of America from evicting a beloved reverend from his home in Northeast D.C.:

For more than two decades Reverend Robert Michael Vanzant has been a pillar of strength in his community in Northeast DC. He opened his heart and his home--his friends and neighbors have made his home a place of shelter for the less fortunate and a place of compassion for those in need of healing. Now Bank of America wants to take it all away.

The petition already has 1,420 of its required 2000 signatures. But it's unclear whether such shows of support will be able to save an institution that is fast losing the community around it.

On a recent Saturday, my neighborhood got a big PR boost from the annual H St. Festival. The street was packed with regulars and visitors alike, noshing on kabobs on empty church steps. It was hard to tell whether a service would take place there the next morning. But it was easy to imagine that former residents would find the area unrecognizable. In the parlance of gentrification, it is now H St. corridor, or the Atlas District, east of NoMa. For now, my housemates and I call it home. In a few years' time, we will almost certainly be gone.

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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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