Changing Neighborhoods Affect Churches

Editor’s Recommendation

Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Spaces

by Tom Infield

Winter 2018

Analysis: Determining the Future of Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Places

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Trust Magazine Winter 2018

Neighborhood change, whether downscale or upscale, can threaten religious congregations and the buildings they occupy, according to the Pew report on Philadelphia’s historic sacred places.

It makes intuitive sense that a place of worship in a deteriorating neighborhood might struggle. Membership diminishes. Adherents who remain may lack resources to continue to pay the bills and maintain the structure.

Garden of Prayer Church of God in Christ (above) is an example. The Pentecostal congregation, which had to abandon its first location after a fire in 1991, occupies two problem-ridden buildings in a section of North Philadelphia that has felt economically left behind for decades. As the roof leaked and the heating system kept failing, “the congregation realized we were putting good money in a bad situation,” says the pastor, Elder Gregory Frison. In spring 2017, church leaders began to seek a buyer. 

It may be less intuitive, though equally true, that neighborhood gentrification presents risks for historic sacred places. Quickly rising home values can push property taxes so high that long-time residents move away; those who stay may feel ill at ease with the new types of people, often younger or more affluent, who move in. Though having moved away, older residents might return for weekly church services. But after a time, the challenge of distance—plus finding a parking spot in areas now crowded with bistros and coffee shops—may wear down the resolve to remain connected.

In Philadelphia’s Bella Vista section, the Church of the Crucifixion, an Episcopal congregation with deep roots in the neighborhood, has struggled with such upscale change. “Here is a minority parish with not a lot of money finding itself in the midst of a quickly gentrifying, economically moving, quickly upper-middle-class situation,” says the Rev. Peter Grandell, the pastor. “How do you [attract new members] when you don’t have the fancy music programs, and you don’t have all of the bells and whistles?”