Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
When the Rev. Charles Tindley built his church at Fitzwater and South Broad streets in 1928, he led a congregation that numbered some 10,000 strong. Flush with black migrants who had fled the Jim Crow-era South, the church was alive with gospel music composed by its founder, including a song said to have inspired the Civil Rights standard, "We Shall Overcome."
But today, the enormous Art Deco-influenced Methodist church called Tindley Temple, built to hold 3,000 worshipers, is lucky to draw 100 on a busy Sunday. Its heyday past, its neighborhood drawing more young professionals than young congregants, it's a church searching for a new identity.
Staring down mounting building costs and an aging congregation, Pastor Lillian Smith has joined a growing flock of religious leaders in Philadelphia who have turned to the nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places for assistance. The group has helped churches and synagogues across the country survive by reinventing the way they use their halls of worship. Smith says she wants Tindley to be Partners' next success story, and she's already speaking their language.
"Most churches are only open on Sundays. Well, what about the rest of the time?" she said.
Smith added that with Partners' help, she has been able to build a revenue stream by connecting with a bilingual Head Start program and a nonprofit that provides counseling for victims of sexual violence — both now lease formerly underutilized parts of the Temple. With those successes, Smith dreams of reviving Tindley's gospel choir, a competitive force that can draw audiences — and their dollars.
Tindley is unusual only in the sense that it has reached out for help. As America as a whole has become more secular, the problem of dwindling congregants has become an issue that increasingly does not discriminate by creed or geography. However, the decline is doubly hard in an older city, where the upkeep of an aging building with the support of fewer congregants can become unmanageable.
"The real problem is often decades of deferred maintenance," said Tuomi Forrest, executive vice president of Partners for Sacred Places.
Unfortunately, according to Partners' estimates, it's a problem that is getting worse over time. Philadelphia has more than 800 active religious buildings that are over 50 years old — the general age when most buildings start needing major renovations. Forrest predicts 10 to 25 percent of those will probably be forced to close over the next decade.
"It's not getting better. It's speeding up," he said.
The closing of churches and synagogues in Philadelphia represents as much of a practical issue as a spiritual one: What does a neighborhood do with an abandoned religious building? The answer, unfortunately, is often "nothing," and the negative impacts of losing an institution close to the heart of a community while gaining a giant deteriorating building are very real.
A 2010 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found many victims in the wake of a closure: the staff employed by the religious institution, the local businesses supported by their purchases, nearby homeowners stuck next to a blighted building, and the poor who depend on the institution's social services and charity.
"You're looking at, per congregation, a loss of $1 to $3 million dollars a year in terms of economic impact," Forrest says. "If a community is already struggling, it can be much worse than that. Property values go down, crime rates go up, and the fabric of the neighborhood weakens."
These concepts resonate with Smith.
"If Tindley closed, it would be detrimental to the community," she says, as she walks through the church's soup kitchen, which has served the hungry continuously since the Great Depression and is busy again thanks to the Great Recession. "Last week, there was a family feeding their 4-year-old child here. Where are they going to go otherwise?"
But the biggest losses may be more abstract — especially when demolition is involved.
"What we really lose is a sense of community and diversity," Forrest says. "When these places are gone, you lose the history and architecture they embody. You start to erase and homogenize the story of the city."
While that may sound ominous, Forrest is quick to point out the dramatic turnaround stories that have helped hone the strategies prescribed to relative newcomers like Tindley Temple.
In 1997, when the Rev. Edward Sparkman took over Shiloh Baptist Church in Southwest Center City, he inherited a gargantuan, 127-year-old, Frank Furness-designed church with a leaky roof and a congregation that had shrunk from a peak of 2,000 to just over a hundred.
"We had lost a lot of our members, mostly due to age ... and our sanctuary was raining from one end to other," he says. "The initial estimate to fix the roof alone was $500,000."
Along with that dizzying number came a winter heating bill that totaled close to $40,000 annually. Sparkman knew something had to change.
Partners, founded in 1989, approached him about participating in a pilot program aimed at turning around ailing churches. They wanted to franchise a "shared space" model that had turned West Philly's Calvary United Methodist Church — which in the '90s nearly sold its Tiffany stained-glass windows just to pay the bills — into a multi-model community center that now houses a synagogue, a historical society, a theater troupe and a jujitsu school, among other things — clearing $90,000 a year just in rent.
Looking at his leaky church, Sparkman says all he could do was "keep an open mind."
The plan was to lease a disused room on Shiloh's upper floor to an arts organization in order to provide desperately needed revenue for repairs. Although Sparkman realized his church needed the cash, his flock was hesitant.
"The biggest problem is convincing congregants that renting out the church is part of God's plan," he said, "but if you ask God for help and he sends you tenants, you take the tenants."
Through divine intervention or not, an award-winning local dance troupe, Brian Sanders' JUNK, was soon knocking. Parlaying rent money into a phased-in repairplan, the church was able to lease even more space — eventually to a theater company and a local neighborhood association.
Today, Shiloh brings in $35,000 annually from its leases, actively solicits building-repair grants, and has slashed its utility bills through relatively simple measures like only heating smaller rooms in the winter.
"Its not just the money, it's also the excitement," said Sparkman. "The building is now alive."
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