Church Leaves The West End, Raising Questions Of The Role Of The Black Church

Apr 2, 2020
Originally published on April 5, 2020 10:34 am

On the last Sunday in March, a dozen Revelation Baptist Church worshippers are wearing royal purple accents as they bounce between aisles making sure the sanctuary is ready for its final day of service in the West End.

Folding chairs and royal purple floral decorations rest on church pews that typically would be filled with churchgoers but now sit empty because of pandemic social distancing orders.

The church was founded in 1921 and moved several times but always within the West End. After 92 years of praise and worship at 1556 John Street, the church is now moving its ministry to Mount Healthy. The congregation decided to sell the building to FC Cincinnati as the soccer club makes way for its new stadium.

"The church is not a building nor was it ever a building. The church is commonly met within the building," Interim Pastor Todd Ingram says in response to community feedback about the church leaving the neighborhood. "Even the great temple of the Jewish people did not stop them from their faith nor their moving forward."

Between older congregants living on fixed incomes and increased maintenance for the aging building, Ingram says selling allowed the church to elevate itself and move into a new phase of its ministry.

Many historically black churches throughout the U.S. are in a similar spot: choosing between staying in old neighborhoods despite shifts in demographics; or moving to be where its congregants are now.

In Revelation's heyday, civil rights leader and Pastor Fred L. Shuttlesworth led the church, making it a focal point for civil rights activity and several visits from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The shift in neighborhood and congregation demographic is accelerating the debate on what role the black church should play to advance the community post-civil rights movements.

Black scholars like John Hope Franklin and W.E.B. Dubois long studied the importance of the black church as a source of collective education, inspiration, and economic and political unity. As the black church nurtured the souls of black folks, it also helped advance the community. It's been a place abolitionists and civil rights fighters could retreat to for protection.

"It can't be overstated the significance of the black church within the collective progress and communal identity of African Americans historically," Vanderbilt University Professor of African American Religious History Juan Floyd-Thomas says. He says the black church is second only to the black family.

Within the last 20-30 years, that centrality has been challenged in several ways, including people moving from neighborhoods and churches to which they were once attached.

For example, Pew Research shows millennials are spiritual but less likely to attend religious services than older generations.

Revelation started losing membership in the 1970s as black people had the chance to move out of redlined neighborhoods. The construction of I-75 in 1957 also displaced others moving them farther away from Revelation. More than half of the people filling the church pews at Revelation these days are over 60 years old.

Floyd-Thomas says achieving most of Dr. King's goals may have caused a false sense of security and relief. What were achievements from the movement, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, have since been gutted by the Supreme Court.

Implicit and explicit attacks on civil rights gains have been "a great challenge to this idea of the black church as an engine of social progress and social transformation," Floyd-Thomas says.

All churches face the challenge of preaching the word of God and addressing modern social issues like economic inequalities and the LGBTQ+ community.

Floyd-Thomas says it's fitting for every church to take up its own fight. But other black scholars believe old civil rights organizations should be taking up the new civil rights fight of mass incarceration.

Ingram sees Revelation's move to Mount Healthy as a chance to fight against food insecurity and addiction, while also drawing in young people. "The children are the church of today," he says. "The adults might be considered the church of yesterday."

In the last sermon at 1556 John Street, Ingram delivers a word from the Book of Joshua - a story about God's people that finally reach the promised land after facing consistent hardship.

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