Members of Antioch Baptist Church in 2010
A drive through Atlanta’s Vine City/English Avenue neighborhood is remarkable for both the abundance of black churches present and the impression of their vitality in an otherwise depressed cityscape. It seems as if there is at least one well-kept church per block in the area, whereas over 40% of houses are abandoned and many businesses have shut their doors (2010 Census). High membership and daily programming also conveys church vitality. Dr. Cameron Alexander, the pastor of Antioch Baptist Church, even had a street renamed after him in 2010, when his church had 12,000 members (Atlanta City Council). Since the population of English Avenue and Vine City was 6,148 according to that year’s census, some churches are drawing congregants from outside the neighborhood (2010 Census). Why are the black churches in Vine City/English Avenue flourishing in spite of the neighborhood’s deterioration?
The black Christian church was established due to the proselytism of slave owners. Social, political, and economic institutions were purposefully destroyed through enslavement. As it was the only institution, the church fulfilled the role of political, economic, and social institution in African American society after emancipation. Free blacks in the North formed churches separate from white churches in the late 18th century, and in the South, whites relinquished control over black congregations after emancipation (DuBois). After slavery ended, whites prevented blacks from participating in political and social institutions in the larger American public realm. This exclusion from public life, coupled with the intentional destruction of African American institutions, reinforced the church’s role as a political and social institution as well as a religious one. Virtually all public services and future institutions were created through the church, including schools, vocational training, libraries, athletic clubs, and insurance companies (Higgenbotham, 7-9). In the late 1800s, during the worst period of American race relations, the church became a place where African Americans could exercise political action, create political and social structures, and safely express dissent with the U.S. government and repressive dominant institutions.
In the early to mid-20th century, many African Americans moved from the rural South to urban areas across America. Urbanization changed the class dynamics of African Americans. Many joined the middle class or strove to do so, which led to a rise in competing religious groups and educational gulfs between denominations. At the same time, African Americans were making strides in their civil rights, leading to greater integration and participation in the public sphere. As they gained the right to vote and as schools were desegregated, the black church lost its place as the primary political and social institution of the African American population. Giving up political power to secular organizations was a strategic move that allowed churches to “develop secular vehicles in order to cope with more complex and pluralistic urban environments” (ibid, 9). Membership lists and goals often overlapped. These organizations allowed church leaders to continue influencing American politics after public attention turned toward the separation of church and state.
The fact that the church continues partially to function as an economic, social, and political institution, and that it has successfully worked toward racial equality in changing social circumstances, is pivotal to understanding its importance in Vine City/English Avenue. The neighborhood began to decline in the wake of suburban flight in the 1970s; empty houses gave way to crime, addiction, and a high rate of poverty. Today, Vine City/English Avenue residents are trying to overcome this challenge. Many of the social services in the neighborhood are created or administered by church leaders and laity. The New Life Covenant Church established the Mattie Freeland Community Garden to serve as a safe recreation space. Antioch Baptist Church created housing for recovering addicts and those who are HIV positive. Many smaller churches in the neighborhood offer daycare and credit unions. Black churches in the neighborhood continue to function as spaces for resistance to oppressive social orders, primarily through institution building and the implementation of social service programs.
Why are the churches in Vine City/English Avenue thriving when secular organizations could build institutions and implement social services equally well? Black theology’s emphasis on freedom for all African Americans, rather than the freedom of individual choice, connects otherworldly salvation directly to this-worldly action (ibid, 5). Salvation comes to those attempting to promote God’s vision of freedom and equality. Freedom is seen as a condition for spiritual willingness, so to be saved one must work toward social justice. Everyday activities that are tied to the church, such as tithing, can function on multiple levels (Frederick). Tithing can be seen as a way of honoring God, working toward salvation, and contributing to the success of African Americans through the programming which results from this funding. Prioritizing tithing over other financial obligations and tithing to purposefully support the Vine City/English Avenue residents can also be a way of expressing agency in the face of a repressive social order. Similar arguments can be made for other church involvement in Vine City/English Avenue, from cooking meals in the church kitchen to joining a men’s club. In this neighborhood, the church provides a religious imperative to advance social justice, a means to express agency through manageable everyday actions, and the social cohesion that reinforces the behavior.
The history of the black church has prepared these neighborhood churches to thrive in the absence of other infrastructure and meet the demands of being a primary social, political, and economic institution in the neighborhood. Black churches in this neighborhood also flourish because they meet their laity’s religious needs through legitimating core values of African Americans (such as freedom and equality) and providing the means to reshape the social structures that constrain them.
City of Atlanta 2010 Census Summary Report Neighborhood Planning Unit L.” City of Atlanta. Accessed Oct 21, 2013.
Du Bois, W. E. B, and Phil Zuckerman. Du Bois on Religion. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2000. and Frazier, Edward Franklin. The Negro Church in America. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
Frederick, Marla F. Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Lincoln, C. Eric, Mamiya, Lawrence H. The Black Church in the African-American Experience. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.
Ordinance to Rename Kennedy Street NW.” Atlanta City Council. Accessed Oct 21, 2013.