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. 

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.

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.