Last week, this series shared research that shows how African Americans have been a significant part of Washington, D.C.’s civic life. This is the third installment of this series, in which I’m writing about how African American churches have fared, especially during the gentrification that has taken place over the past two decades.
Blacks and African Americans are still the largest majority here, though it is much smaller today — only 45.39% of the population, down from 70% during the early days of the late Marion Barry’s administration.
I interviewed several D.C. pastors, starting with my own at All Nations Baptist Church, located at the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and North Capitol Street in northeast D.C. for more than three decades. In May, our church will celebrate 32 years of service for our pastor, and 62 years serving the community for our church.
In my interview with Pastor Coleman, he said: “In order to properly address gentrification, we must first consider the land space available to its citizenry. For example, let’s look at land space in the District of Columbia, which is much smaller than most cities, therefore when gentrification occurs the impact is felt more harshly.”
Pastor Coleman also said “churches with the history of residential connection in recent times have suffered because more affluent neighbors have established new policies, new zoning regulations, they have created new shifts in population, where policy is formed which pitches against new interest and new trends, such as dog parks, bicycle lanes and congested living conditions. Thus many of the regular congregants, having attended worship services here in the District of Columbia for decades, have been forced to move for economic and social reasons. They left because they do not want to continue to compete for parking in the neighborhoods they once enjoyed. Driving in from longer distances from the suburbs has become an issue, especially with the internet services, and worship services on Zoom or teleconference services. These services and other opportunities are more convenient for them.”
In my second interview with the pastors who have stayed here in this city, I spoke with Rev. Dr. George Gilbert Sr., the pastor of Holy Trinity Baptist Church, who said, “Black families have moved out of the city, and they are not willing to drive back to participate in live church services. They are not feeling that it is worth the drive. Gentrification impacts the culture, meaning, what is acceptable and what is not. On Sundays, the church used to be almost the only thing open here in this city. Now we must compete with so many others. We did not have so many foot races happening on Sundays. They were held on Saturdays, now they are held on Sundays, too.
“Gentrification has replaced our culture,” Rev. Gilbert said. “It has been a racist move. There is no poor white community in the District of Columbia, and we have a top-down white community, not a bottom-up. There is not a place for the downtrodden.”
And finally, the third pastor, Rev. Dr. Wallace Charles Smith, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church at 1500 9th Street NW, shared with me: “Shiloh Baptist Church parishioners work hard to connect with our new neighbors, we invite them to attend worship services on a regular basis.”
As housing prices continue to go up for homes here in the District of Columbia, people have lost their homes due to the increases in taxes, said Smith, who headed up a task force to assist people with finding solutions and ways to keep their properties.
“Now disbanded, we would go to the D.C. government and refer them to federal agencies,” Smith said. “We would send them to churches that could provide some assistance. It was clear this was a losing battle. Several churches have worked together to do the best they could in helping each other. They all worked together, but the forces seem to be lined against us. Membership is stable but growth is a real challenge now. All Shiloh Baptist Church can do is simply maintain. I would love for our membership to begin to grow again. At least half of our members live in Maryland, and we do conduct a simultaneous Zoom service to accommodate them.”
Next week, we will talk to a few more pastors and share how the African American church life’s been for them.
Lyndia Grant is a speaker/writer living in the D.C. area. Her radio show, “Think on These Things,” airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on 1340 AM (WYCB), a Radio One station. To reach Grant, visit her website, www.lyndiagrant.com, email email@example.com or call 240-602-6295. Follow her on Twitter @LyndiaGrant and on Facebook.