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Black churches as big players in city renewal

With record attendance, black churches are buying stadiums.

By Daniel B. Wood Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 25, 2001


The choir, seven soloists, and modern dancers have performed. The five-piece rock band has led the congregation in "Going on my way with the Lord." Next, in flowing gray robe and purple sash, the man responsible for packing this renovated warehouse three times each Sunday steps to his acrylic pulpit.

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"Tell the truth," says Bishop Kenneth Ulmer. "How many of you still can't believe we own the Forum?"

Some say it is the biggest symbol yet that the black church in America has arrived. Others worry it signals an entrepreneurial evangelism that jeopardizes the church's spiritual mission.

Either way, the Faithful Central Bible Church's recent purchase of the Great Western Forum - the 17,600-seat arena that once housed the Los Angeles Lakers - offers a window into the triumphs and challenges facing black churches today.

The $22.5 million purchase comes as black churches from coast to coast - 1 of every 5 churches nationwide - are attracting record numbers, becoming major players in urban renewal, and wrestling with their missionary mandates to revitalize both individuals and the communities in which they exist.

"By purchasing this massive edifice, [the church] is establishing a footprint of significant outreach on the landscape of the city," says Robert Franklin, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, the nation's largest consortium of African-American seminaries. "But I share the anxieties of some who feel that large black churches are in danger of skipping over their legacy of social advocacy for the poor in their ambitious efforts to build the kingdom of God on earth through comprehensive community development."

Besides services on Sunday, the church plans to utilize the arena during the week for family entertainment, from circuses to concerts to ice-skating shows. It also intends to build a conference center, hotel, and shopping complex on the grounds.

The reasons for the purchase, church officials say, are simple: The church needed room to expand, and the primarily black community of Inglewood needed to save a major landmark. "We saw an opportunity to accommodate our membership while preserving a key landmark [whose loss] was going to kill a lot of commerce and jobs in this town." says Pastor Gerard McCallum.

Explosive growth

Begun in 1983, but with only 1,700 members in 1993, Faithful Central Bible has experienced explosive growth in recent years. In 1998, in the same amount of time it took to acquire construction estimates for an additional 4,100-seat sanctuary, membership shot to more than 11,000, with no sign of slowing.

The twin characteristics of growth and successful economic development underline a trend among black churches nationwide, experts say. Many smaller churches are consolidating, often drawn by charismatic preachers, and church leaders are searching out larger grounds in the inner city in which to expand.

"With the rise of the black middle class, you are seeing more and more monied congregations willing to gather from long distances into larger churches," says Matthew Price, a theologian at Duke Divinity School in Raleigh, N.C. Because these churches are often located in poorer neighborhoods, he adds, many are channeling their new wealth into massive redevelopment projects.

Indeed, from New York to Houston to Raleigh, churches such as Abyssinian Baptist, Windsor Village United Methodist, and Tabernacle Baptist are winning widespread reputations for constructing low-income housing, day-care centers, gymnasiums, and job-training centers.

Aided in part by the Congress of National Black Churches, which represents 65,000 black churches with a membership of 19 million, 100 churches in 15 cities have been singled out for long-term asset-building, even while the organization presses Congress and local governments for measures to aid low-income neighborhoods.

"The black church has always been about the business of saving not only the soul of the saint, but the soul of the community in which the saint lives," says Mark Whitlock, director of a Renaissance project for First African Methodist Episcopal Church, just miles from the Forum, which has extensive community development programs of its own, supported by its 18,000 members. "Now we find that the long-sought success of that historical mandate is coming into the spotlight."