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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Scrambling to help save churches like Cookman before it’s too late is nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places. In the group’s 10th-floor Sansom Street office, Associate Director Tuomi Forrest says Cookman’s story is representative of what’s happening not only in Philly, but in many cities around the country. “The struggle of trying to balance their community service and also figure out new ways to manage the building, and find resources to use it as a community asset is going to be overwhelming in some cases,” Forrest says.

Though the group doesn’t have a firm set of numbers of churches in danger, the picture looks grim. “I would say that there are hundreds of congregations like that in Philadelphia,” Forrest says. “I think that we’re really at a point where we’ll see dozens and dozens if not more closures … over the next couple years.”

Beyond the loss of a historic building and religious community, churches often provide many other benefits to the neighborhood. “It’s a double blow to a community when congregations close,” Forrest says. “They are there for after-school programs, soup kitchens, concerts, GED classes. A whole range of things.” Partners last month released a study of the “halo effect” that churches have on local economies, finding that the dollar value of services provided can run into the millions.

Indeed, the churches’ role in the greater community may be the key to their salvation, as Partners helps ministries reach out to other tenants who can make use of building space and help pay for upkeep. The Calvary Methodist on Baltimore Avenue in West Philly is considered a model, hosting five different congregations, a dozen community groups and a theater collective.

Whether churches, especially those in the very poorest parts of the city, can find enough allies in the community before it’s too late remains to be seen. “We’ve seen a lot of success stories but it’s hard,” says Forrest. “It’s a long road. There’s no overnight cure for this.”

The Shiloh Baptist Church in South Philly is yet another place of worship facing the dilemma—a dwindling congregation of limited means, combined with sky-high utility and maintenance costs. Between 50 and 75 worshipers come in for Sunday service at the immense building on Christian Street, part Gothic revival-style, part brick annex.

Utilities can run $4,000 a month in the annex alone. Members no longer use the sanctuary for winter services because it costs another $4,000 to heat, so instead they have moved into the social room in the annex. Five roofs have been replaced in recent years and the electrical system has been redone, but there’s more work to do.

The Rev. Edward Sparkman has been the church’s pastor for 13 years. With a snow-white beard but hair still mostly dark, Sparkman leans back in a chair in his office and explains that he’s held more than 120 funerals during his tenure for longstanding church members, among them many of the biggest donors.

Trying to stay ahead of the dwindling resource base before it reaches a crisis point, Shiloh is seeking to rent out unused space and bring in some much-needed cash. “We want to let community groups hold meetings here,” Sparkman says. “We have so much space.” The building already hosts some addiction support groups, women’s groups and ballet practice, among others.

Dressed immaculately in a white-striped shirt and red tie, Sparkman is happy to lead a tour of the facilities. Looking for good places to rent, church officials went into areas that had barely been touched for decades, revealing century-old locker rooms on the third floor with original gas lighting fixtures and slate shower dividers. An eerie yellow light fills the second-floor gymnasium, its floor covered in tarps, buckets and an old kiddie pool to catch the leaks from the roof. Seemingly endless rooms filled with tables and chairs wait around every corner, just begging to be used. “We’re really looking for groups that benefit the community,” Sparkman says. The halo effect study found Shiloh was already worth a theoretical $1.6 million to the surrounding neighborhood.

“I like to take the vision that it’s one hand helping the other,” the reverend says. “They’re helping us, we’re providing them a space to help the community.”

While Shiloh looks to secure its future, the neighbors who lost their church at Cookman are left to wonder what comes next. “It’s a traumatic experience,” says Arttaway. “You have a feeling of being lost.”

Pryor has already found a new nearby church to attend, but Arttaway and Graham still refer to themselves as homeless. “Me and Miss Arttaway say that when this weather breaks we’ll go float, just visit different churches,” Graham says.

“You find a home that you can fit into,” Arttaway says. “And a home that’s not so far away.”

Sadness and regret for Cookman linger in the air, but Arttaway says there’s nothing to do but carry on. “Yesterday is yesterday’s history,” she says. “You pick yourself up by the bootstraps and you keep on trucking.”

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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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