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As Philly neighborhoods gentrify, black churches lose their base and leave

As African American churches sell their buildings and move, the ripple effect is being felt in both the neighborhoods where they relocate and those they vacate.

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 Pennsylvania historic marker at the  September dedication of First African Baptist Church's new home in Overbrook.
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 Pennsylvania historic marker at the September dedication of First African Baptist Church's new home in Overbrook.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Until a few years ago, the greatest threat to the future of the 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.

With longtime black neighbors moving out and mostly younger, mostly white newcomers moving in, the community's transition sapped the church of its membership — Sunday attendance dipped from a peak of 250 to 65 — and turned 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.

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 Ministries Worship Center in South Philadelphia. 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, New Light Beulah's 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.

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, 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.

In the late 1950s into the 1960s, white congregations left urban neighborhoods when black residents moved in. Then, it was "white flight," said Melissa Wilde, associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. "Now, it's white return."

First African Baptist Church sold its building at 16th and Christian Streets for $2 million in 2015. A day-care center moved in, and a karate school is negotiating to rent space. The congregation made enough money to not only purchase a former St. Callistus Catholic Church property in Overbrook, but also renovate the two-acre campus' office and church buildings

"This is the best thing that could have happened to us. It's a great opportunity to do ministry," said the Rev. Terrence Griffith, First African Baptist's pastor. The church began worshiping in its new building last September.

In South Philadelphia, its weekly attendance was about 100. That has nearly doubled, with an infusion of young people. To hold on to them, First African, which gave itself the new moniker "FAB Church," is doing things differently.

"Young people don't want to be in church all day," said Griffith. "They don't need a half-hour for announcements, or singing one song for 30 minutes."

The church has started Scout troops, invited community groups to meet there, and is working to make sure what happened in Graduate Hospital doesn't happen in Overbrook.

"We intend to buy up vacant properties to make sure that they stay in the hands of the community," Griffith said of the congregation's new bailiwick.

Still, the transition to an unfamiliar neighborhood is fraught with pitfalls, including the risks of losing longtime congregants and turning off new ones by taking along old church practices.

"If you don't bring in new members and embrace the new community, it doesn't matter how much money you have in the bank" from the sale of the previous church building, Hildebrandt said.

The Rev. Steven Avinger, of Greater St. Matthew, held membership focus groups when the church was contemplating a move. Once the decision was made to buy the former Triumph Baptist Church building in Nicetown, he dispatched an advance team to prepare the way. Church members knocked on doors, hosted community meetings, and met with neighborhood stakeholders and police.

"We have to get people to trust and respect us in an era when people aren't as churched, or committed to church," Avinger said. He has been advised to treat the move like a business start-up, and that establishing the church in a new neighborhood will likely take five years.

In the transition, Greater St. Matthew has lost nearly half of its 600 congregants. But it gained members such as Mildred Burden, 68, who lives down the street and had been commuting by bus to a North Philadelphia megachurch. She visited Greater St. Matthew on a snow day.

"It was the love I felt from [the beginning]," Burden said. "My other church was huge, but this is like family."

Back in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church is holding on to the hope that it can weather gentrification, renovating its 93-year-old building at 15th and Lombard Streets with $100,000 in private donations and a grant of $750,000. In its congregational heyday in the 1960s, about 2,500 worshiped there. Now, about 150 regularly attend.

"I hope that we will be able to increase our membership," said Vernoca Michael, who has served on the church's historical commission. "Although we are African American Methodist Episcopal, we have never been a church closed to other ethnic groups. We hope to reach out, and continue to be a presence in the community."