Having long been lauded as a spiritual hub for the Black community, Washington, D.C., has boasted congregations filled with African American members who intentionally come to the nation’s capital to worship every Sunday.
Today many of the larger churches are still open, however, a growing number of smaller churches have sold their property, moved to Maryland or have simply remained closed more than two years after the pandemic.
“This is a period where the African American churches are under great challenge,” said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. “Congregations are aging, facing physical and economic challenges.”
Lynch said even though some churches need upgraded HVAC systems, “often they can’t take out loans of up to $250,000 for heating and air flow systems.”
This is part of a national trend. About 4,500 Protestant churches closed in 2019 – the last year data was available — with approximately 3,000 new churches opening, according to Lifeway Research, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The housing crisis and the challenges churches are facing are hand in hand in the District.
Rev. Cheryl Sanders, pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Northwest, D.C., said the church doesn’t plan to move and, instead, is presenting more opportunities for the community to expand with the place of worship.
“We are not moving,” said Sanders. “We are investing in the community.”
“We are building two affordable housing units,” Sanders added, noting that the process has been challenging, with the church located in a historic area.
In December, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a faith-based partnership to develop more affordable housing in the District. The program involves the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and other groups.
“Every day, houses of worship across D.C. step up to support our community in several ways,” Bowser said. “We know that there are faith-based partners
who see the need for safe and affordable housing, and they want to help.”
Rev. Joseph Williams, senior program manager for Enterprise Community Partners, said, “Faith leaders are seeing the need to rethink their footprint in the city, and we have many examples in the city in terms of incorporating property.”
The Rev. H. Lionel Edmonds, pastor of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church, and the Rev. Joe Daniels, pastor of the Emory Fellowship: A United Methodist Congregation, have worked for years with the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) to bring affordable housing to the District. Now, they have branched out on their own.
“We in the faith community applaud the Mayor and her dedicated work to make our city a place where anyone can own a home or have an affordable place to live,” said Edmonds. “We look forward as leaders in the religious community to continue our labor with the Mayor in this effort. We have worked together before; we can do it again.”
“We have always looked at salvation holistically. It has a spiritual base, but in addition, salvation is also mental, emotional and physical, and it is also financial,” Daniels said. “John 10:10 says the devil comes to steal, kill and destroy, but Jesus said that I have come so that they may have life abundantly.”
Daniels, whose church is located at 6100 Georgia Ave Northwest, said, “We opened the Beacon Center in March of 2019. Our church built 99 units of rental housing at 60 percent of the average income in the city. This was a 60 million project. Eight of the units are permanent supportive housing for those who are moving from homeless to permanent residency.”
He said they also renovated the sanctuary as a multipurpose facility.
“We also have a banquet space and half-court gym, and we are building a restaurant cafe to provide culinary training for returning citizens.”