A Transforming Light in Urban Blight

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This article is featured in the Change (May/June/July 2012) issue of Circuit Rider
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Changing Neighborhoods, Part 1

The average Protestant church in the U.S. was founded in 1940. Yours might be a little older or a little younger than that, but unless you’ve just moved to your current facility, chances are, the neighborhood around your church has changed a bit since its founding. The area might be poorer, richer, younger, more commercial, more diverse, or less religious. Urban decline and regentrification can result in a church that is notably out of step with the people around it. Long-time members may find themselves increasingly isolated (and fewer in number) as cohorts die, move away, or find the commute to their old neighborhood no longer reasonable.

The Changing Neighborhoods series highlights three congregations who have adapted well to the economic, cultural, and demographic shifts in their communities and are responding to the needs and expectations of their new neighbors. Read Part 2 and Part 3.

A Transforming Light in Urban Blight

West Nashville United Methodist Church was founded around the turn of the nineteenth century. Since 1889, the sanctuary, which holds around 250 people, has graced the West Nashville community along with the Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Baptist, and Catholic churches surrounding the beautiful Richland Park in one of Nashville’s popular western burgs. Around the same time, homes were built in the Sylvan Park community and the thriving area was home to mostly white, upwardly mobile families who worked to bolster the burgeoning city of Nashville.

Experiencing a post WWII boom, the church added on to its structure in the 1950s to accommodate the then one thousand members. Like so many United Methodist and Mainline Protestant churches throughout the U.S., its membership slowly declined since that midcentury peak due to changing community demographics and the general decline in interest in mainline Protestantism. As the years passed, the area began to shift from a relatively quiet suburban community to an urban outpost between the 40th and 50th blocks from downtown Nashville. A bus stop was added to the church’s corner of 48th and Charlotte Avenue and Interstate 40 was constructed behind the church, dividing neighborhoods and creating a busy wall of traffic where there was once a connected community.

Over the years, as the neighborhood demographics shifted and the community became increasingly urban, the church sold property to survive as its core congregation began to move away and pass away. Gradually, the church building became an island among urban businesses. Next door, what was once an empty lot owned by the church became a McDonald’s restaurant. Behind the church, a sold property became a steel worker’s union hall. By 2006, the Richland Corridor, a business section of Charlotte Avenue, where the church resided, had experienced a severe degree of urban blight and many of the storefronts were empty.

Other churches were struggling to stay open; the once thriving Church of Christ two blocks down closed its doors in 2008, sold its lot and regrouped elsewhere with its remaining few faithful members. The Presbyterian church turned into a community theater building and office space. The Baptist church, which was once the largest church on the block, sold its property to a non-denominational church that revitalized the space. West Nashville UMC found itself on an island between vastly different socio-economic groups, ghost churches, and diverse ethnic populations. It was a great situation to be in ministry, however, the church’s social capital was very low and the small remaining core congregation was quite fatigued from years and years of filling leadership positions, and just surviving the changing conditions, not wanting to let go of their deep commitments. There was one remaining property the church had to sell, its parsonage across the street in Sylvan Park.

The church and its faithful, core congregation decided to reappropriate funds from the sale of the parsonage to develop a revitalization plan and reach out to the diverse community around it. They hired staff to develop community ministries and developed relationships with diverse ethnic populations in the larger community. They began to reach out to community organizations and partner with them to help bolster community outreach programs such as meals for the homeless, ministry to immigrants and refugees, and a food pantry. The church partnered with organizations like Hands on Nashville, Second Harvest Food Bank, Feed America First, Good Food for Good People, and Mental Health Co Op to help provide services for the increasing numbers of homeless and working poor in the urban and suburban community.

They also began to reach out to the diverse ethnic and socio-economic groups in the surrounding neighborhoods, developing Bible studies in Spanish and expanding children’s programs. Beginning with a bi-lingual service in Spanish and English, the church began to attract a more diverse population including African Americans and people from throughout Latin America, Mexico, and Africa. The church partnered with a local elementary school and began teaching Spanish, English, and Computer Skills to parents of the children. Each summer, for VBS, the church hosts a very diverse group of around sixty children.

In addition, the church got involved with neighborhood associations in an effort to understand crime in the area and came together with Metro Police, neighborhood associations, councilmen, and concerned citizens to come up with a plan to reduce crime. Some building upgrades were performed along the way—installing a new roof, fixing some leaks, and upgrading the bathrooms. A harsh summer of lightning damage to the building in 2010 turned into some nice renovations, including a beautiful hardwood floor installation in the narthex and a new sound system.

The church also began to develop its music program, utilizing the gifts and talents of its many musicians and songwriters in the church and larger community. The church partnered with other non-profit agencies in the community such as the Global Education Center and hosted a series of community concerts to raise awareness for the church’s presence in the community.

Though the church is still considered small (under one hundred) it has grown significantly over the last few years. The community surrounding the church is also changing. New businesses are coming in and reclaiming empty spaces, new families are moving in to the area, and overall, the community is beginning to feel safe again. The church hosts many programs and ministries including the Nations Ministry Center for Refugees and Immigrants, The Little Pantry That Could, Thursday night community meals, AA meetings, ESL classes, a children’s teaching garden, andthe church is working on beginning a parents’ day out program. The congregation is still growing into that space that holds 250, but if the definition of a megachurch is one that utilizes all of its resources to the fullest, then West Nashville UMC would be one.

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