Black Churches Leaving Philadelphia as Neighborhoods Gentrify

The Reverend Terrence Griffith (lower right) gets some help from Congressman Bob Brady (behind the pole) and State Sen. Sharif Street (on ladder) to unveil a historic marker at the September dedication of First African Baptist Church’s new home in Overbrook.

Until a few years ago, the greatest threat to the future of 99-year-old New Light Beulah Baptist Church in Philadelphia’s Graduate Hospital neighborhood was a thunderstorm that barreled through on a Thursday evening, ripping off part of the roof.

The raging downpour in June 2010 flooded the sanctuary, rendering the church uninhabitable. Yet, the determined congregation restored its house of worship at a cost of $250,000, and a year later moved back to the corner of 17th and Bainbridge to resume its ministry.

But the vicissitudes of nature paled next to another looming threat: the pressures of gentrification on an urban pocket where housing prices have increased more than 400 percent since 2000.

Demolition of New Light Beulah Baptist Church at 17th and Bainbridge Streets in South Philadelphia.

With long-time black neighbors moving out and mostly younger, mostly white newcomers moving in, the community’s transition helped sap the church of its membership — Sunday attendance dipped from a peak of 250 to 65 — and turn the stucco and stone edifice into an albatross.

So, like many African American churches in and around Graduate Hospital and other gentrifying areas of the city, New Light Beulah in 2017 sold its building, its home for the last 61 years. Quickly razed, it was replaced by the 16-unit Portofino condo complex. The congregation departed with about $2 million — and a chance to save itself elsewhere.

In just the Graduate Hospital area and near environs, developers have snapped up the church properties of Greater St. Matthew Baptist, First Colored Wesley Methodist (now Fellowship Community Wesley Methodist), First African Baptist, Christian Street Baptist, and New Hope Temple Baptist.

With New Light Beulah Baptist Church razed, the 16-unit Portofino condominium complex rose at 17th and Bainbridge streets.

The leave-takings are having ripple effects in both the neighborhoods where the congregations relocate and those they vacate, making way for new churches offering a brand of religious practice perhaps more appealing to the new kids on the block.

New Light Beulah members are temporarily holding services at a Yesha MinistriesWorship Center in South Philly. In two weeks, they’ll resettle in the Nicetown section, in a building bought from Christ the King Ukrainian Catholic Church near the entrance to the Roosevelt Expressway.

“I really didn’t want to leave,” said Bishop Benjamin Thompson 3d, its pastor for 30 years. “To see the [old] neighborhood change, it makes me feel sad and empty, like history is being lost.”

Within blocks of New Light Beulah in Nicetown, Greater St. Matthew purchased a building. Wesley went to East Oak Lane, New Hope Temple to Germantown, and First African to Overbrook. Christian Street Baptist has not yet acquired a building and is temporarily worshiping in the office of a tax preparation service in Germantown.

Into the spiritual vacuum created by their departures have come congregations, largely nondenominational, that attract different kinds of flocks comfortable with unorthodox venues. For the most part, their memberships are young, tech-savvy, and multiracial, a mix of starter families and singles, college students, and a smattering of older congregants. Suzanne Roberts Theater on the Avenue of the Arts is the sanctuary for Epic Church. The Block Church holds two hour-long services, replete with pink lighting and a rock praise band, for about 300 at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts. City Life meets at South Philadelphia High School, and Freedom Church at the Prince Theater. An exception is Liberti, which purchased a Center City church building.

“There are plenty of churches for people already in church,” said Pastor Brad Leach, of City Life. “We want the people who are sitting at home,” disconnected, or walking the streets with their earbuds blocking out the city and the people around them.

From left, Joshua Camacho, Sharon Richmond, and Terri Allen sing during services at the Block Church held at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts.

Churches have long followed the migration patterns of their members, or potential members. But because they are more stable than other social institutions, they are often the last to leave a changing neighborhood, said Ram Cnaan, director of the program for religion and social policy research at the University of Pennsylvania.

“If rich people move into an area, the old congregations would not attract them,” he said. “… The new people will either form new religious congregations or consume services in their old communities.”

Since 2009 alone, at least 30 religious buildings of various affiliations have been razed in Philadelphia, with Graduate Hospital, Point Breeze, Kensington, Fishtown, and West Philadelphia hit hardest, according to Rachel Hildebrandt, senior program manager at Partners for Sacred Places, a national organization based in Philadelphia that assists struggling congregations.

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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer