As developing shopping centers and art districts in cities attract young, mostly-white millennials, historically black churches are struggling with congregants leaving due to the rising cost of living.
First, it was white flight: upper middle-class families fleeing to the suburbs when minorities began integrating with white neighborhoods in the late 1960s. Now, the opposite pattern of movement is happening in big cities. As a result, historic black churches are suffering.
“Now, it’s white return,” Melissa Wilde, associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, said. White millennials are flooding back into big city neighborhoods, seeking to develop downtown areas. As residents leave, churches like Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ shut their doors for good.
Chicago is one such city, and many John Brown University students have witnessed gentrification’s effects firsthand during the spring break annual Urban Encounter trip to Chicago. Katie Hughes, junior social studies education major, spoke at length about her experience last year in Chicago. As white millennials repopulate and develop the boroughs in an attempt to restore the historicity of the area, Hughes said that the city is “damaged because of this gentrification,” but that it “takes digging to find that tainted narrative.”
Students on the trip visited Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood in the midst of a time when Chicago’s black population is decreasing quickly in patterns described as an “exodus” by Chicago’s WTTW News. Woodlawn is preparing for the development that threatens to follow the construction of the Obama library. While the library will draw economic development, current patterns of gentrification mean that the current population may not remain in the area long enough to reap the benefits.
A prominent African-American church located in the Shaw and Logan Circle neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., Lincoln Temple voted to close after 150 years of ministry. In an interview with the Washington City Post, former resident J. Houston said, “The hardest part of this is that the people who build the condos and populate the dog parks don’t know what they are doing. They are displacing an entire community.”
At the time of Lincoln Temple’s shuttering last October, the Chicago Defender reported that the black population of historic Shaw-Logan Circle “plummeted from 65 percent to 29 percent between 1990 to 2010.” Similar large and historic churches have shut down or relocated in the absence of their congregants in other cities: New Light Beulah Church in Philadelphia, for example, or Second Providence Baptist Church in New York City.
Hughes remembers her visit to a black church in the area vividly, recalling the welcoming atmosphere. In the face of gentrification, she believes that local churches will not miss a step. “The white evangelical church has trouble lamenting, because bad things don’t happen to affluent churches as much,” Hughes said. “The African-American church has been practicing the spiritual discipline of prophetic lament for a long time.”
This sentiment is reflected in the attitudes of church leaders in churches that have relocated in the face of gentrification in cities. First Baptist Church, a black church in Philadelphia, sold its historic building in 2015 and relocated. According to US News, the funds enabled the church to buy a former Catholic church and renovate it. Rev. Terrence Griffith, the church’s pastor, said “This is the best thing that could have happened to us. It’s a great opportunity to do ministry.”