Black churches as big players in city renewal

With record attendance, black churches are buying stadiums.

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.

"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."

The Forum purchase, in part, is being rationalized as the logical extension of such other outreach efforts. Through an arm of the church known as CRTD (Creative Resource Talent Development Agency), Faithful Central Bible is also heavily active in creating low-income housing for the poor and seniors, homeless shelters, and halfway homes for ex-prisoners.

Forgetting their roots?

But some ministers in the community say that with the Forum purchase, the church has gone in the wrong direction.

"There are many in the black community that feel the church's moves into economic development have come at the expense of the social gospel," says Najee Ali, a black Muslim minister from South Central Los Angeles.

He and other critics lament a black church which has foregone the street marches, sit-ins, and political rallies of the Martin Luther King years. And they say the purchase of the Forum is an ostentatious symbol of consumer capitalism that sends the wrong message and raises questions of the church's economic motives.

"They have got to be very careful in how they operate this venture," says Benjamin Hubbard, a professor of religion at California State University in Fullerton.

Even though initial income from nonchurch events will go to a for-profit corporation that operates the Forum - mostly to pay off the mortgage - Professor Hubbard believes the appearance of wrongdoing could hover over the church, depending on what activities are permitted there.

Another potential problem is the church's plan to sell naming rights to the arena for $10 million or more, ostensibly to corporations that might bid for it. The church itself will not have its name on the arena.

Above all, many wonder how a church can maintain an atmosphere of sacredness in a venue that is so blatantly commercial, and predict church programs will become more entertainment-oriented to fill the seats.

But church officials say such questions will disappear once the public understands their mission. Rather than leaving social action behind, they say they are pursuing it through economic development and larger services.

"Martin Luther King mobilized and amplified a particular dimension of the black church, which was to address the social ills of his time like racism," says Bishop Ulmer, Faithful Central Bible's charismatic leader. But "there is also social action in providing jobs, as well as moral and social inspiration to another generation," he adds. "We think we are reaching out to a more diverse and multiracial constituency which can go even further than just marching and protesting."

Good, clean fun

In the church's current location, a renovated warehouse called "The Tabernacle," Ulmer struts back and forth on a massive stage, while seven TV monitors and state-of-the-art sound beam the proceedings to the back rows. Above the pulpit is a giant poster of the Forum, with a quote from Habakkuk: "For I am going to do something in your days that you will not believe."

Ulmer says he wants the arena to become "the premier family-gathering place of southern California." No entertainment acts - including negative rappers - will appear there that violate any idea of "good, clean, fun, which is also what a church should be about."

While he admits "Hollywood values" have crept into many black churches, with elements like bands and video screens, for his church, he admits only to modernizing the services with contemporary music, which he says he blends with classic hymns.

Ultimately, the setting of a church shouldn't matter, he says. Faithful Central Bible has never worshiped in a traditional venue - services were held in a school for three years, and now in an old warehouse.

"Church is how you behave in society after the sermon has been given, how you live your life after the benediction," he says. "The building is not important, except as a vehicle through which we dispatch and deploy others."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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