Crossed Out: Inner-City Churches Crumbling Before Our Eyes

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted May. 18, 2011

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You see them in the neighborhoods, stone and mortar giants rising up from rowhomes and rubble. Philadelphia’s innumerable churches seem out of place, beautifully crafted testaments to religious faith surrounded by burned-out shells and boarded-up windows. Looming over the corner at 12th Street and Lehigh Avenue is Cookman United Methodist, an 84-year-old relic. Some of the masonry in the high arched windows is crumbling away, and rusted air conditioners hang precariously from the walls, but the building maintains a steady presence in a neighborhood where far too many houses and far too many lives have fallen to pieces.

As school lets out on a spring afternoon, kids in blue uniforms from nearby George Clymer Elementary file past Cookman. Last year, the church itself was filled with youth after school, working inside or just hanging out on the steps. On Sundays, dozens of people still came for services. Today, no one stops. The church doors are locked, the calendar board outside empty, just naked brown plywood inside the gray wood frame. A crossing guard helping the kids across Lehigh says the deserted church was bustling just a few months ago.

“I don’t know what happened,” she says. “They were having programs there … next thing I know they were closed.”

In February, Cookman shut its doors for the last time, depriving the neighborhood of its spiritual rock and place of worship, to say nothing of vital community services. But Cookman’s story is just one drop in a trickle of church closings in Philadelphia that could soon become a flood. And some church leaders feel betrayed that wealthy congregations aren’t contributing more resources to keep their inner-city counterparts up and running.

The doors have already closed on many churches throughout the city: St. Peter’s Episcopal in Germantown; Metropolitan AME Zion in South Philly; Mars Hill Baptist in North Philly; 40th Street Methodist in West Philly; and St. Boniface in Norris Square. The worst-case scenario is when a building is in such bad repair that it is destroyed, such as in the case of Metropolitan AME. And the soaring Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street is currently awaiting word from the Department of Licences & Inspections as to whether it will be demolished.

Civic and religious leaders are sounding the alarm. “Our practice seems to be a retreat from traditional places where we have relationships with a high concentration of poverty,” says Robin Hynicka, senior pastor at Arch Street United Methodist, just north of City Hall. “I understand it, but I’m not willing to accept it emotionally and spiritually. Ultimately, the people who have depended on these centers for help are left floundering.”

“The community will be absent an institution that really provides some tremendous resources in terms of place of meeting, in terms of stabilizing communities,” says former Mayor W. Wilson Goode, currently a minister at the First Baptist Church of Paschall in Southwest Philly. “Youth groups, job training, job development, re-entry, mentoring programs, places for people to meet. The main thing is the public needs to know this is taking place,” Goode says. “The best solution is to shed light on it.”

Hanging in a dark, seldom-used stairwell is a plaque that reveals Cookman’s origins. Originally a mission founded in 1871, members then built a chapel and later a church on Lehigh Avenue. After a fire destroyed the old facilities, the current building was put up in 1927. Hynicka himself had been pastor at Cookman United for 15 years, arriving at the church in 1978 when a congregation that had once numbered in the hundreds was down to a mere handful. Five people showed up for his first sermon.

“I was assigned for two years to make myself available to the ministry that was going on,” says Hynicka, who was 24 and fresh out of seminary at the time. Undiscouraged by disrepair—when he arrived, the front room of the church housed construction debris and a bathtub—Hynicka got to work building on the senior and youth programs.

“We kind of focused on children and youth and their families,” he says. “We developed an after-school program with emphasis not only on assisting elementary aged children with homework, but also a leadership development component with youth and teens.”

Money issues were ever-present. The big stone building was expensive to heat and maintain, and the small, low-income congregation had no way to come up with the necessary dollars. But the church scrounged the money to stay open. “We were constantly finding creative ways to keep the building safe and available to people,” Hynicka says. The pastor even learned to fix a constantly on-the-fritz furnace and tend to a leaky roof.

Hynicka stayed in the church and the neighborhood until 1993, when he moved on to the Frankford Ministry. By then, the congregation at Cookman had grown to 100, with 50 or 60 showing up for services on a given Sunday. The pastor’s departure from Cookman was featured in journalist Buzz Bissinger’s portrait of early ’90s Philadelphia “A Prayer for the City,” which quotes from Hynicka’s final sermon: “Today is not a day God has brought us to say ‘It’s over, it’s finished.’ Today is a day God has brought us to say ‘It’s new, it’s a beginning.’ Are you ready?”

“His refrain of hope was appropriate,” Bissinger wrote, “but in that simple church built for another time and another era, it was hard to know just what would happen.”

After Hynicka left, Cookman was in danger of closing altogether, but another ambitious new pastor was assigned on a part-time basis. Donna Jones, now 54 years old, remembers her first days at the church after she finished seminary, transitioning from a career in pharmaceutical sales. “When I came, the intent of the bishop [from Cookman’s parent organization, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church] was to close the church,” Jones says. “It still wasn’t self-sustaining.” However, the church received enough support from the conference to stay on, and Jones took on the ministry job full-time.

In 2004, Jones says life got more difficult. “The mood of the nation and the mood of the conference changed,” the pastor recalls, saying that the parent church got tired of propping up congregations that weren’t bringing in enough money to support themselves. “The conversation about Cookman being a welfare church started to really take traction.” Nevertheless, she continued scraping by with the help of some suburban churches. As of last year, Cookman was still offering a wealth of programs for the community—an after-school center, teen education and mentoring programs, addiction programs, re-entry programs for ex-offenders and a soup kitchen. The Dollarboyz youth club held activities in the church every day after school, and the local chapter of the Black Nationalist Uhuru movement planned a national convention in February. A congregation of 40 to 50 was still showing up on Sunday. From the outside, the church appeared well-utilized, succeeding as both a place of worship and a community center. But lurking beneath the surface were irresolvable tensions that would soon put it all out of business for good.

“It’s heartbreaking,” says Ellen Arttaway, who has lived near Cookman since the 1950s, and has been a member since 1987. “I figured in my old age, I was safe. I had a church to go to, a church home within walking distance.” Now 74, she sits in the living room of Gloria Graham’s rowhome, around the corner from Cookman, along with another neighbor and former church member Ellis Pryor. Arttaway and Pryor sit on a plastic-covered couch, Graham in a folding chair on the other side of a glass coffee table. A child’s push toy props the door open on a warm spring afternoon.

“But as it stands,” Arttaway sighs, “the members that were there, that were left— we could not carry it.”

The church roof was in desperate need of repair. The building had a mold problem. There was no money to pay for heat or hot water, and no time to try to build up a new congregation to help defray the costs. “And this is the dead of winter,” says Arttaway. And money wasn’t the only source of conflict. Neighbors also objected to disruptions from the youth programs, including parties that brought teens in from all over the city. “It wasn’t that we didn’t want parties, it was the fact that the parties needed to have been monitored,” Arttaway says.

“They fought, they jumped on people’s cars and stuff, on people’s properties,” Graham says. “Half the time, people riding on the street, you couldn’t go by, because they’re all in the middle of the street.”

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1. Todd said... on May 18, 2011 at 08:14AM

“Houses of superstition should be torn down. Tax these cults into extinction.”

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2. Dave said... on May 18, 2011 at 10:39PM

“Sad that God has called all committed Christians to the suburbs or to gentrified urban neighborhoods. It must be God's will right? God wouldn't call his people to where it might be difficult to live or where the school district isn't great would he? He wouldn't call us to lay down our lives or anything inconvenient like that would he?”

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3. JC said... on May 23, 2011 at 06:40PM

“TOO BAD the churches did not really think ahead until it was too late. They should have thought of ways to rent out or use the extra space years ago. And many SUBURBAN CHURCHES ARE NEXT,they will lose people due to many folks losing jobs/homes,natural disasters & pedophiles/pedophile clergy,mismanaged funds,etc. For all the good these urban churches do in the community(ies),it comes down to MONEY NOT SALVATION---period.”

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