Sanctuary

For a century this inner-city church has served as a refuge. But its most important mission has always been outside the walls.

In 1988 the congregation bought the old parsonage next door and converted it into office space for the Community Outreach Center, whose projects were funded by grants from a variety of sources, including the United Way, state and federal programs, and the Metro Denver Black Church Initiative.

Several years later Robert Woolfolk was serving on the initiative's board when the Denver-based Piton Foundation decided to fund a survey of black churches. The goal was to "assess the nature and scale of community outreach programming offered by black churches and explore interest in future church collaborations for outreach," according to Grant Jones, who supervised the project for Piton. The survey identified 164 local "black" churches--churches in which both the majority of members and the senior ministers were African-Americans. Eighty of these churches participated in the survey.

The vast majority of the churches were located in northeast Denver. Although they ranged in size from ten-member storefronts to 2,700-person congregations, half reported 150 members or fewer. Nearly half had an annual operating budget of $50,000 or less; just a quarter had a budget that exceeded $100,000. Many relied heavily on volunteers for all aspects of church operations: 29 percent had no paid clergy; 46 percent had no paid staff. The congregants were predominantly adult female, mostly low- and middle-income.

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"The picture of church-sponsored community outreach that emerges," the survey concluded, "is one of substantial effort, aspiration and potential but limited capacity and scale. Although most churches report sponsoring at least one type of community outreach program, about half of the programs are offered on an intermittent or as-needed basis.

"While senior ministers want the church to be an effective vehicle for social change, they readily acknowledge that current programming does not meet the needs of the African-American community."

The survey suggested that Denver's black churches would be more effective at providing community services if they established better relationships with corporations and foundations that could provide funding. But that, Jones points out, is much easier said than done.

In the past, secular corporations and foundations have been reluctant to give grants to churches out of a concern that the money might be used to recruit members rather than provide services. At the same time, the fiercely independent black churches have been leery of accepting money from mostly white-run corporations and foundations for fear that they will try to influence church decisions.

As wary as they are of white interference, black churches have also been slow to work together. Some of the reluctance is historical, as real--if not as violent--as the Catholic/ Protestant split in Northern Ireland. But some can also be attributed to ego, jealousy and pettiness.

The importance of the black church to the black community was detailed by Andrew Billingsley, a Spelman College sociologist who served as consultant on the project. "Historically, black churches have been the preeminent institution in the black community for strengthening and stabilizing black families," he noted. "Since their inception in the eighteenth century, black churches have performed vital spiritual, cultural, social, economic, educational, health, social welfare, community development, economic development and leadership development functions.

"In addition to forming black educational facilities at the pre-school, elementary, high school and college levels, black religious institutions have been instrumental in creating life insurance companies, banks, other businesses, credit unions, hospitals, nursing homes, funeral homes, orphanages and housing for the elderly and low-income families and in providing food, clothing and shelter to the needy. Most beneficiaries of such efforts are community residents who are not church members."

Adds Jones, "Black churches remain behind in distressed inner cities when everyone else who can has fled to the suburbs. When everyone else has closed their doors, the black churches and the liquor stores are the only ones that remain open...often serving the same customers."

The leadership of the civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties came out of the black churches: Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson. But in the decades since, the largest, most powerful black churches have grown complacent. "The potential is still there," Jones says. "They are truly sleeping giants."

The giants started waking up this March when the Center for Democratic Renewal, formerly known as the Anti-Klan Network, called a press conference to announce that it had statistics indicating that arson against black churches across the country was on the rise. The CDR called the burnings "an organized conspiracy of white supremacists" and hinted that right-wing conservatives had fanned the flames with their rhetoric.

Stories about the church burnings started appearing in newspapers and on TV stations across the country. Visiting a new church built on the site of a burned-out church in South Carolina, President Bill Clinton promised the full support of federal law enforcement agencies and blue-ribbon panels to look into the situation.

In Denver, Rocky Mountain News publisher Larry Strutton stood in front of the 130-year-old Zion Baptist Church and announced a fundraising drive to rebuild burned churches, contributing a $10,000 check to start the process; the newspaper began running a full-page advertisement showing a burning church and the inscription "All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing."

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