Black Churches In Seattle Are Struggling to Stay in Place As Many African-Americans Move Away

Rev. Aaron Williams, Senior Pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, speaks at Seattle Colleges' 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.Credit: Seattle Colleges
Rev. Aaron Williams, Senior Pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, speaks at Seattle Colleges’ 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. Credit: Seattle Colleges

If you’d told Pastor Reggie Witherspoon in 1987, back when he first heard the call of God to start a place of worship, that one day a white man would sell legal weed just feet from his front door, he’d have called you a liar. But 28 years since Mt. Calvary Christian Center was just a circle of 15 chairs, Pastor Witherspoon daily shoos away customers of the pot shop next door — from his parking lot, his front stoop, the doors of his teen center — like a janitor scattering pigeons.

Reverend Beverly Jackson was in Portland when she got a call. A senior member of Curry Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, housed in a columned brick building off 23rd Avenue, arrived at the church around 7 in the morning to turn on the heat. But the lights wouldn’t come on. Then he noticed something in the back, scrawled in black graffiti: “Go back 2 Africa.” Rev. Jackson drove the three hours back to Seattle, wondering who would do such a thing.

Reverend Carl Livingston is stretched thin. A member of the United Black Christian Clergy and the lead pastor at Kingdom Christian Center off of Rainier Avenue, he teaches political science and history at Seattle Central College in his free time. Since the recession, which hit his congregation hard, Rev. Livingston has been digging into his own pockets, kept full enough from his teaching job, to keep the facilities from falling into disrepair. It’s a struggle, he says, but if he’s not giving all he’s got, what kind of pastor would he be?

These are the leaders of just a few of the more than 30 churches in Seattle that serve predominantly black congregations, many of them in the Central District. They all tell of recent struggles as their congregations have been drawn away from the neighborhood and the city, making way for a newer, wealthier and whiter population. And they describe the temptation, which literally knocks on church doors daily, to sell and follow their communities in the African-American exodus from Seattle.

Seattle’s most prominent celebration of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is held each year in Mt. Zion Baptist Church, on the border between Capitol Hill and the Central District. Friday, January 13 marked 44 years of the event, which is sponsored by Seattle Colleges and often attracts figures, both black and white, in the upper echelons of civic life: mayors, governors, executives.

That it takes place in a church is no small detail. Dr. King was an American Baptist minister, his doctorate was in theology and much of his organizing came as the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a social justice movement built on the organization and conviction already within the black church. He paid a visit to Seattle in 1961, on the invitation of Mt. Zion’s longtime pastor, Rev. Samuel B. McKinney.

“Oh my goodness, man, if you know anything about the history of the African American, the church is the bedrock, period,” says Pastor Witherspoon. “Every major historical black figure was made through the church. We rely on the church for everything. When our ancestors were slaves, all they had was God. … It’s where we raise our kids, it’s where we teach our young people, it’s where we marry people, it’s where we bury people, it’s where our families are taught how to be strong. It is critical for our survival.”

Rev. Livingston compares the role of the black church in African-American life to that of the Catholic church for Mexican Americans, the synagogue to Jews, and even Native American sweat lodges. “I’m talking about it being the platform, the hub, the refuge, the teaching center, the bastille that you run into when things are falling apart around you,” he says. “The black church, whether it’s meeting in a tent or a temple has been so crucial to the African-American existence and sojourn in this country. It’s because it was the freest institution we had, even though it was regulated in slavery.”

Just as Dr. King saw activism and the church as inextricable, Seattle’s African-American church community is expected to keep one foot in the social justice activism of black Seattle. At a meeting last summer of Not This Time, the organization created by Andre Taylor and Devitta Briscoe after police shot their brother, Che Taylor, some attendees laid into church leaders for not playing a bigger role in the effort to change Washington State laws governing police officers’ use of deadly force. But Briscoe says that’s changed and Mt. Calvary Christian Center, Mt. Zion and New Beginnings Christian Fellowship are now all heavily involved.

“We put a lot of pressure on pastors,” says Livingston. “It’s not just, ‘Thank you for starting the service on time or not keeping us too long.’ We ask the pastors, ‘What can you do to help, because my family’s falling apart?’ ‘Yeah, the service was good, but our community’s falling apart and you’re not doing anything.’ Being a pastor is a really big job if you’re really trying to respond to the needs of the parishioners.”

Click here to read more

Source: | David Kroman