Black Churches Struggle as Black Residents are Pushed Out of Harlem

Black Churches Struggle as Black Residents are Pushed Out of Harlem
Black Churches in Harlem such as Mount Olivet Baptist Church, have seen their congregation dwindled

AFRICANGLOBE – The tourists started lining up two hours before morning worship service on West 116th Street in Harlem. Most were dressed in everyday clothes, contrasting with the dark suits and prim dresses of the largely African-American congregation in the historic sanctuary of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ.

The Rev. Roger Harris, an associate pastor, made his way from the back of the line in his pinstripe suit. “Good to see you, glad you came,” he said, offering grins and handshakes on a recent Sunday. The tourists were herded to the balcony until, as in several churches in Harlem, they packed the seats there. Down below, where the congregation has dwindled over the years, there were plenty of empty seats.

The tourists often put offerings in the collection basket. But then they are gone. And so despite the draw, churches like Canaan are struggling. And at the heart of the struggle is a contradiction: As Harlem’s fortunes rise, tithing — the traditional source of the churches’ money — is fading away.

Harlem’s historical base of African-Americans has been dwindling. Those who remain have regularly tithed, setting apart 10 percent of their incomes for their church, in times good and bad. But now that has changed, too.

“Your tithers are your people who really keep your church going as a whole,” said the Rev. Dr. Charles A. Curtis, the senior pastor at Mount Olivet Baptist Church and the chairman of Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement.

“With the drop in population,” he said, “you have less people to tithe.”

The Rev. Jesse T. Williams Jr., senior pastor at Convent Avenue Baptist Church, said, “Giving is a form of worship, and an expression of thanking God for what God has given us.” At his church, he said, tithes in recent years were down about 12 percent.

Canaan, now with 1,000 members, has lost 500 since 2000, which increased the amount of room available for tourists. Without the tourists, Mr. Harris said, the senior pastor would be “preaching to an empty balcony.”

And tithes are down 20 percent, though other offerings at Canaan have been stable. It is not clear how much of that money comes from tourists.

Some churches have experienced drops in tithing of as much as 50 percent, said Deborah C. Wright, the chief executive of Carver Federal Savings Bank, leading them to seek loans from her bank.

“Clearly this is a transitional period,” said Canaan’s senior pastor, the Rev. Thomas D. Johnson Sr., who celebrated his seventh year at the church last month. “I believe that Canaan and all of our strong churches in Harlem are determined not to become extinct. This institution must survive, not only for the congregation, but because of who we represent.”

The story of Canaan, and its current struggle, is shared by many of Harlem’s churches. It was founded in 1932 in the spirit of what elders call a country church. Many early congregants were migrants from the South, sharecroppers under Jim Crow, steeped in a worship tradition. As more families came, the church grew.

The previous pastor, the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, led the church for almost 40 years, until he retired in 2004; he was an architect of the civil rights movement and an aide to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“He was a fighter,” said Mr. Harris, who has a goal of increasing church membership by at least 50 within the next year.

In 1970, Mr. Walker once stood on the trunk of a car near the church and, through a bullhorn, preached a sermon about drug-dealing in the neighborhood. “We’ve been living dangerously for a long time,” he told his curbside congregation of 300, and whoever else was within earshot, “and we’re not afraid to name names.”

The African-American church, he often said, was the primary resource for the African-American community. “It is where black people have the ultimate decision-making power,” he said in a 1979 newspaper interview. “Black folks will pay church dues before they pay their rent.”

Under Mr. Walker, whose black-and-white portrait hangs in Canaan’s lobby, membership swelled to the point where ushers had to put chairs in the halls. The Canaan that Mr. Johnson inherited, however, looks remarkably different. So does the neighborhood. Where African-Americans once made up the bulk of Central Harlem’s population, they are now less than half. Economically, million-dollar homes and trendy restaurants glimmer amid stubborn pockets of blight.

Even in churches where membership has been steady, some pastors say, tithes have dipped. In recent years, food pantries have run bare, building problems have festered, and funds that help people make their rent, keep their electricity on or get a MetroCard to get to work dry up. Some community initiatives have been stalled. Church members always dig deep when pastors make pleas from the pulpit. But despite church holdings in real estate amid Harlem’s rising property values, church operations are tied to the faithful.

“Everybody is affected one way or another,” said Mr. Williams of Convent Avenue Baptist, located on 145th Street. “People who have been here a long time, members who have owned their homes or brownstones 30, 40 years, have come up quite well. The other end of the spectrum being, we have members in the congregation who have lost their residences, lost their jobs.”

More and more, pastors say, church members bring their worries over layoffs and rent increases to them, and to the altar.

“The misery index in Harlem is still high,” Mr. Johnson, 56, said.

“It’s really something to walk through Harlem,” he continued, “and see people obviously struggling, and literally on the other side of the street see people walking toy dogs, and coming out of condos. We’ve got to bring them together. I think that’s the bridge we have to build.”

Last Sunday, Canaan celebrated its 81st anniversary. And as part of his legacy, Mr. Johnson has been rethinking its ministry. He has ushered in a church Web site and started a men’s ministry, a women’s ministry, a young adult ministry and a social policy institute. He also revived the evangelism ministry, which over the summer will, in part, target Harlem’s growing diversity.

“A multilingual church in a multicultural community, that’s where we live now. That’s the kind of Canaan that we’re starting to build,” Mr. Johnson said.

“Harlem is going to continue to evolve,” he added, “but we need to make sure we preserve the symbols. People aren’t coming to look at the new condo that went up. They come for the Apollo, to walk down 125th Street and get a glimpse of what that looked like back in the day, and the churches where pastors like Walker preached.”


By: Kia Gregory