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Black Churches Struggle to Remain Downtown

  • David Briggs Religion News Service
  • Updated Oct 17, 2008
Black Churches Struggle to Remain Downtown

A fading sign at the corner of East 79th Street and Golden Avenue announces the Last Stop Bonanza Inc. as "the stop that has your everyday needs" -- even though the gate is locked and the space is filled with trash.

Farther down East 79th, the Rev. David Cobb Jr. presides over a block party where smiling children ride ponies, Christian rappers perform and ex-cons play basketball next to older adults in conversation at shaded picnic tables.

"This has the potential to be a safe haven for the community, for the city and for those who want to serve God," says Cobb, the 35-year-old pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church. "God is going to do it.

God is going to use us."

So many in the inner city have given up -- businesses, the middle class, many of the predominantly white churches that filled this once-thriving neighborhood. But the black church -- Emmanuel and more than 30 other congregations within a 10-block radius -- has stayed.

The question is, for how much longer?

Here in what has been described as the nation's poorest big city, the black church is at a crossroads. Longtime congregations like Emmanuel are critical to struggling neighborhoods, providing safety, social services and an anchor for revitalization plans.

In a time of unprecedented black geographic mobility, the church faces the same social and economic forces -- including people moving to the suburbs and the high cost of maintaining older buildings -- that caused many predominantly white Protestant churches and synagogues to flee downtown decades ago.

Even the Cleveland Catholic Diocese, which maintained its urban presence long after dioceses elsewhere closed large numbers of churches, is looking at ways to close or merge more than 25 churches in the city.

Now the black church is facing its defining moment, trying to hold on to a centuries-old mission that expects men and women who have moved up the economic ladder not to abandon those left behind.

"There is a definite trend toward black churches moving to the suburbs," says Lawrence Mamiya, chairman of the religion department at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "Upwardly mobile blacks and black pastors are moving to the suburbs."

That leaves congregations like Emmanuel, which has stood at the corner of 79th Street and Quincy Avenue for more than 90 years, at the center of the struggle for neighborhoods throughout the inner city.

Without churches like Emmanuel, says local City Councilwoman Mamie Mitchell, the neighborhood "would be desolate. It would be without faith, without hope."

Emmanuel was started by blacks in 1916 in what was then a mostly white neighborhood. When fire destroyed the wooden structure in 1939, the congregation rebuilt it. By the mid-1950s, the sanctuary was so crowded that ushers had to set up chairs in the aisles.

But in the 1960s, those who could afford to leave the area took off for safer neighborhoods farther out. The Sunday crowd at Emmanuel has dwindled from 600 to around 200. Emmanuel, like other area congregations, has become almost a suburban church in an urban setting.

Yet those who still attend Emmanuel, a faithful remnant of auto mechanics, teachers, salesmen, small businessmen, factory workers and retirees, are committed to this corner.

So is Cobb. He looks out of his office to the empty lot across the way and envisions a family life center and a Christian school.

To start this revival, however, he realizes it is no longer enough to build the church from the suburbs in. Cobb is aggressively trying to persuade members to reach out to the neighborhoods many of them fled years ago.

The pastor plans to station a church bus at a nearby public housing complex every Sunday morning to let residents know they are welcome at Emmanuel. He also is starting his own GANG, or God's Anointed New Generation, to show his commitment to teen ministry.

Bringing in new people is only the first step. The harder part is keeping them there, Cobb acknowledges.

"You almost have to think of this the same way as if you are going to another country," said parishioner Rochelle Smith, who knocked on doors at the housing complex to invite residents to a church-run block party.

Yet traditions die hard. When Cobb arrived two years ago, he replaced a pastor who had spent 40 years in Emmanuel's pulpit. The congregation skews dramatically older, with many members in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

Some of his first changes were cosmetic: painting the walls, polishing the pews and installing new lights to brighten the place.

Other changes, such as music programs that appeal to youth and a different dress code so newcomers will not feel like outsiders, will take time, he and church members acknowledge.

Janette Holland, who joined Emmanuel in 1926 at age 10, still wears a hat and dress to Sunday worship but says, "We older women have to learn to accept the change. That's the hardest part. We've got to quit looking back."

Like other churches in the area, Emmanuel struggles to find money for expenses such as roof repairs and filling a hole in the parking lot.

Those challenges would be enough, yet one more obstacle looms over Cobb and the church.

On Saturday nights, a church deacon hooks up Cobb to a kidney dialysis machine in the pastor's home and waits six hours as he undergoes treatment. On Sunday afternoon, his brother, also an Emmanuel deacon, does the same.

Cobb learned he had a kidney disease six years ago. He has been on dialysis awaiting a transplant since May 2007.

The illness has cemented the relationship between Cobb and Emmanuel.

Several members say Cobb's honesty about his disease and sincerity about his faith won them over right away.

Still, church members have doubts: Is the pastor asking too much of himself and them? Even Cobb admits to his own dark nights of the soul.

"There's a lot of times I ask God for strength," he said.

It is then, the pastor says, he hears the Holy Spirit responding that Emmanuel Baptist is where he is meant to be. Sometimes, he says, the confirmation can be as simple as a phone call or a letter from a church member thanking him.

"God, I guess, he knows how much I can bear. He knows it is rough for me," Cobb says. "He also knows I'm not going to quit and run from the challenge. Because I'm in it for the long haul."

David Briggs writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
c. 2008 Religion News Service