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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Another complicating factor were whispers that the UMC was not thrilled with Jones’ politics, specifically that she invited the controversial black revolutionary Uhuru group to speak to kids and hold events. The outspoken nationalist organization had scheduled its 20th anniversary convention at Cookman in February, but were forced to relocate on the fly when the church shut down.

Uhuru released a scathing denunciation of the UMC’s “ongoing attacks”: “[Uhuru’s] agenda, which represents the interests of the African working class, was in direct conflict with that of the United Methodist Church, a representative of white power.”

 A UMC spokesperson would only comment through a written statement assuring that after Cookman closed, “The church officers returned the deposit for the Uhuru event with apologies.”

Thinking back on her 17-year tenure at Cookman, Jones defends the community programs that drew criticism. “We didn’t have church kids,” she says. “We had kids that were on the margins and they came with on-the-margin issues. They came with loudness, came with cursing, came with all kinds of interesting attitudes.” But, she says, that’s exactly who the church was there to serve. “Our goal wasn’t to make angels in 24 hours,” she says. “If you came into Cookman at 14, we didn’t care if you were transformed by the time you were 15. We cared if by the time you were 25, you were able to be an adult.”

As for the Uhuru group, Jones says they were just one of many influences she sought to expose to the kids, noting that she also brought in veterans of the civil-rights movement, peace activists and truth and reconciliation advocates. “I actually like America,” she says. “I’m not a separatist. But I think it’s unjust for young people not to be exposed to the breadth of political thought.”

Ultimately, Jones says, the parties and politics were side issues. “In the end, I don’t think the kids and politics has much to do with it. It just comes down to the money.”

For insurance, pension and other fees, plus $4,000 a month for heating oil in the winter, the church had to come up with about $70,000 a year, not including the pastor’s salary, which Jones was no longer receiving by the end of her tenure. Then, structural repairs to the building could run into the hundreds of thousands. For a congregation of 109 people, most making less than $15,000 a year, “it was just impossible,” Jones says.

Weary of constantly fighting just to get by, Jones finally left Cookman in December, along with many of the congregation members. “If you ask people to make bricks without straw long enough, they get tired,” she says. “I was going to work every day in a cold building. There was no hot water, there was no heat for the kids’ teen center we were trying to keep open, and for the first time since I’d been at Cookman, the senior neighbors were really mad.”

Arttaway and her neighbors say they never heard a real explanation as to why Jones walked away. The UMC sent a temporary preacher along with a warning from the conference—“Time is running out.”

“We were just dumped and abandoned, that’s the way I see it,” Graham says.

When she left, Jones hoped the dwindling congregation would somehow be able to make a go of it. “I’m 54,” she says. “I said maybe if I step out, the conference will step up in a different way. Maybe if I move out, somebody else will come in that will pick it up.”

But help was not forthcoming. Faced with an impossible financial burden and no hope of bailout from the conference, the remaining church members voted to shut down. On Sunday, Feb. 13, Cookman locked its doors.

The worst part, to Jones, is that the UMC, with more than 34,000 churches and 8 million members in the United States, couldn’t find more ways to help out its churches in vulnerable neighborhoods. “We minister to the poor,” Jones says. “Middle-class people aren’t coming to 12th and Lehigh. What I felt was not fair was for a church with an average income per person of 10 or 15 thousand, we had the same economic responsibility of a church that was bringing in a million dollars, plus had a couple million dollars in endowments.

“There was a sense in general that to give to Cookman was putting money down a dark hole.”

According to the UMC, divestment from inner cities is something the mainline church is trying to avoid. “I fully understand the criticism because of how it appears, but it really is an appearance,” says Yvette Davis, director of the Office of Urban and Global Ministries for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. “We’re doing everything that we can to remain in the city, build up our ministries and enhance existing relationships so we can all work together to keep the city strong.”

Davis says that Cookman was under discussions for various strategies to continue its service, but the problems just became overwhelming. “That building is a very, very old, old building. It’s been a monster to try to maintain over the years,” she says. “They plugged on as long as they could.

“A lot of our urban churches are grossly understaffed, while doing the best that they can to minister to the issues and concerns in their local communities. Then they’re trying to maintain buildings that are 100, 150, 200 years old with congregations that have just gotten smaller and smaller over the years.”

The Rev. Charles McNeil, executive director of church partnership at Palmer Seminary, part of Eastern University, did a study on traditional African-American churches in South Philly and found more bad news. In the 19146 ZIP code, encompassing parts of Grays Ferry and Point Breeze, McNeil found 22 churches open 15 years ago, each over 70 years old, many of them in use for over a century. Of the 22, 18 are still operating, but only three are in good physical shape and project a strong future. The rest are in need of extensive repair, with no obvious source of revenue. “Those churches perhaps may not exist in a few years,” McNeil says. “If they survive another five years I’d be surprised.”

The city is paying attention, says the Rev. Malcolm Byrd, interim director for the Mayor’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives. “We are aware of a growing number of religious structures in need of repair, and are of such magnitude that diminishing congregations are not able to sustain it,” he says. “There is awareness and also some concern about how to strategically revitalize those organizations.”

“I think this is a relatively new reality for Philadelphia,” Byrd continues. Last month the city hosted representatives from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to explore opportunities for collaboration.

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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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