Stained glass, steeples and financial sustainability

The formerly enslaved artisans who constructed First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina, sometime after the Civil War didn’t use nails. Metal was expensive and often hard to come by for Black builders less than a generation from bondage.

The Rev. Alexander McBride, First African’s senior pastor, explained how the laborers built the church in Gothic Revival style, noted for its signature pointed arches and windows. The current building replaced an antebellum praise house, an open one-room clapboard space with little furniture so the enslaved could engage in a more mobile, joyful service removed from white surveillance and sit-quiet worship styles.

First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina
First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina, was constructed by master craftsmen more than a century ago.

“They used the mortise-and-tenon method, where they interlock the wood. And this church has withstood every hurricane” that has rolled through the coastal city, said McBride, the 16th pastor at First African in its more than 150 years of existence.

And there have been many storms. An 1893 hurricane drowned many of the town’s Black residents, stranded in low-lying areas or swept to their deaths. But even that massive storm didn’t cause significant damage to the church, thanks to the unnamed craftsmen who may have lacked nails but had possessed the skill and wisdom to use the strongest joint known to woodworkers.

The church’s biggest current enemies are time, termites (which have eaten their way through some of the structure’s undercarriage) and moisture — largely unavoidable menaces for a century-old building in a humid seaside town.

Earlier this year, First African was among dozens of historically Black churches to win grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Those monies, through the Preserving Black Churches initiative — $4 million in this funding cycle — will support projects that recast their sites’ history through new interpretation or exhibits, grow capacity through staff hires and community outreach, and repair aging or damaged buildings.

Diversity of spaces

The grantees highlight the diversity of Black worship spaces and the history of how Black Americans have fought for religious freedom and built their own institutions amid racism and violence. They include institutions such as 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which just marked 60 years since the Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four girls and damaged the church; the elegant Black-majority Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia; one-room churches built by hand and heart; and churches in places with historically small Black populations, such as Alaska and West Virginia.

Two images side by side, one of a brick church steeple, one of a white basilica
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, (left) and Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia, are both grant recipients.

“Black churches are living testaments to the achievements and resiliency of generations in the face of a racialized, inequitable society,” said Tiffany Tolbert, the Action Fund’s senior director for preservation. “They’re foundational to our Black religious, political, economic and social life.”

In some places, a church is the only building that remains as an artifact of a Black community that no longer exists. Scotland AME Zion Church in Potomac, Maryland, not far from the nation’s capital, is one such example from a community swallowed by encroaching development and urban sprawl.

Religion scholar C. Eric Lincoln once described the Black church as the unchallenged “cultural womb of the Black community.” Fellowship halls and sanctuaries in Black churches have long functioned as multipurpose rooms, where worship and politics meet. Churches like Beaufort’s First African have been incubators for Black social enterprise; during Reconstruction, First African was the site of a school for freed people, hungry for the literacy denied them during slavery.

Numerous historically Black colleges, civil rights protests and social movements trace their origins to Black pulpits and pews. Preserving church spaces can thus have a multiplying effect, documenting as well the stories of Black communities at large and the work of Black architects, artisans and mutual aid.

Worthy of preservation

It’s commonly said that the church is “more than the building,” yet buildings are material remnants of history and culture. What kinds of meaning do church buildings have for you?

Image of a church made with stone bricks
Design features of the Halltown Memorial Chapel are tangible history of the people who worshipped there.

That’s the case with the Halltown Memorial Chapel, built in 1901 not far from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where abolitionist John Brown and his band of brigands in 1859 had raided an arsenal in hopes of ending slavery. The one-room chapel is small, only about 40 feet by 50 feet, with room for 13 pews. It was built of rubble stone by church members, stone masons and laborers who also constructed a nearby turnpike or worked at the local paper mill, which has since closed. Services continued there for decades, only ceasing after World War II because of a dwindling congregation. After that, it hosted the occasional gathering until its last event — a wedding of one of the founders’ descendants — in 1988.

Kim Lowry, the treasurer of the Halltown Chapel Memorial Association, cataloged the many repairs needed via email. “Water damage from a hole in the roof and from water seeping in under the foundation was the culprit. And without regular events or services, the chapel suffered from neglect. The plaster walls needed to be rehabilitated, the flooring had rotted and deteriorated and required replacement, and exterior work was required on the wood window sills and frames and the Chapel entrance area.”

Powderpost beetles had chomped on the pews, spreading ruin with every bite. One of the church’s three stained-glass windows was missing altogether, and the others needed restoration. One is a poignant tribute to Edna, a church member’s child who had died in infancy. Such design features — with references to congregation members who fundraised for such elements — are tangible history, traces of people long gone and their efforts to build beloved community.

“It’s impossible to talk about American craftsmanship without talking about the Black and Indigenous hands that constructed it even before 1776,” said Brandon Bibby, a senior preservation architect with the Action Fund. “It’s important to preserve that aspect so that we as a society don’t forget. By preserving, we are saying, ‘This place matters in the whole context of the American landscape.’”

“What I want most is that through this project, Black congregations and communities will see the value and beauty in their places and see they are worthy of preservation,” he said.

Does your church have a historic role in your community? How has its role changed over the years?

Image of a man inspecting the foundation of a building
Repairs being made at 16th Street Baptist.

Recognizable elements of church design can be particularly vulnerable to deterioration. Steeples are both symbolic and pragmatic communicators; their towering presence in a landscape announces where people can worship or seek shelter. Yet sitting aloft, largely inaccessible, placing strain on dramatic, heaven-pointed roofs and often channeling rainwater to places it shouldn’t go, steeples can be a source of problems that go unnoticed until a leak sprouts or cracks appear.

Many of the Preserving Black Churches grant recipients need steeple repair. When congregations are forced to choose among costly repairs, a steeple can sometimes take a back seat to high-traffic areas with more visible problems, such as the sanctuary itself.

Funding a range of needs

What traditional elements of your church are difficult to maintain? Would your congregation be OK without them?

Declining church attendance has meant less coin in the collection plate and, in turn, fewer resources for maintenance and repairs. Black American church membership has dropped in recent years, from 78% in 1998-2000 to 59% in 2018-2020, though Black Americans remain one of the top populations most likely to be church members (along with conservatives and Republicans), according to a multiyear Gallup poll released in 2021.

A 2012 Kellogg Foundation report also found that Black people give more of their income to community-based causes than whites, in part because of a culture of mutual aid, lack of access to white-dominated institutional funding and traditions such as tithing. Even so, when an evangelical research firm surveyed church financial well-being, more Black pastors said their congregations had less than seven weeks of cash reserves — perhaps because they are dependent on a community with lower wealth in the first place. Getting money to repair churches can be particularly difficult.

Following the first grants that went to 35 churches across the country, recipients of another $4 million will be announced in January, Tolbert said, as part of a plan to distribute between $8 and $10 million, with support from Lilly Endowment Inc. In total, $20 million will be invested through Preserving Black Churches across all of its program goals.

If you were asked what in your church is worth preserving, what would you say? What would your congregation say?

headshot of Tiffany Tolbert
Tiffany Tolbert

That funding will go not only toward capital needs, Tolbert said, but also toward planning, to help churches understand how to undertake preservation. Matching grants will help churches create new preservation endowments so that invested income can be used to support maintenance and preservation of existing buildings. Emergency grants are also available to address immediate issues such as damage caused by floods, fires and even acts of vandalism.

And the Action Fund is working with six churches — four in Alabama and one each in California and Chicago — to help develop comprehensive stewardship plans that will address restoration and rehabilitation of the buildings along with programming and interpretation, activating space for community, and bringing in arts and social justice programs. They will benefit from a consulting team of architects, engineers, business planners and capital campaign fundraisers.

“It is essential that these places are activated,” Tolbert said. “They are centers of worship, but also, they continue to serve the community.”

Action Fund executive director Brent Leggs told The Washington Post in an interview that Black churches are exceptional lenses through which to view Black and American history. “It’s amazing to see centuries of Black history told at historic Black churches. Some of the stories include formerly enslaved Africans moving through emancipation, beginning to form communities, … and some of the earliest buildings founded by African Americans in the United States [include] a Black church. These places are of exceptional significance. Their stories matter, and they are worthy of being preserved.”

Would members of your community benefit from learning more about your congregation’s past and its role in local history?

Questions to consider

  • It’s commonly said that the church is “more than the building,” yet buildings are material remnants of history and culture. What kinds of meaning do church buildings have for you?
  • Does your church have a historic role in your community? How has its role changed over the years?
  • Steeples are a traditional element of many churches, yet they can be difficult to maintain. What traditional elements of your church are difficult to maintain? Would your congregation be OK without them?
  • If you were asked what in your church is worth preserving, what would you say? What would your congregation say?
  • How is your space “activated” for your community? Would members of your community benefit from learning more about your congregation’s past and its role in local history?

It’s an overcast October day, but despite the autumnal pall and the chill in the air, a line of visitors files through a fenced-in plot of raised beds at Elijah’s Farm near Durham, North Carolina. One by one, they shovel dark, rich soil into the beds where a farmer will soon plant another season’s flowers and microgreens.

Just minutes earlier, the Rev. A.W. Shields had exhorted a crowd of about 40 people to make their hands instruments of growth and transformation.

“We don’t just talk about liberation,” she’d said. Instead, liberation is an embodied practice that requires doing collectively and individually. To the sound of West African drums, Shields reminded attendees that freedom means putting hands, back, mind and heart into the quest for a better world.

service at Elijah's Farm
Members of the Root Cause Collective gather for a healing justice event called Root Church.

Versions of that message recur throughout this gathering of The Root Church, an intentional community that Shields and partners have created. The “farm service” was only the second formal service for the church, which strives to provide a worship space for Black people, especially Black women, LGBTQ people, and those who want their faith to walk in step with their politics.

The Root Church is an outgrowth of Root Cause Collective, an organization composed of clergy, counselors, social workers, and health experts who offer physical, mental, and organizational health and wellness services.

How does your congregation embody its most important commitments?

Melanie Harris, a professor at Wake Forest University, performs a baby dedication ceremony.

The collective began after Shields and other women convened to study the story of Deborah, a military strategist, prophet and judge whose reach has long been debated because she likely did not have authority over the men of her time. Deborah’s story resonated with Shields and her collaborators, mostly high-achieving Black women who experienced loneliness and isolation in churches and professional settings.

Shields formed “trauma-informed spiritual support groups for Black women and queer folks impacted by gender-based, race-based and religious trauma.”

The groups found their time so meaningful that they wanted to continue in spiritual formation together which eventually led to the church gatherings like the one at Elijah’s Farm.

In Deborah’s story of power within patriarchal restraint, of fighting ceaselessly for her people but getting little credit for important victories, “we really read her as a Black woman,” Shields said.

The collective and the fledgling congregation are both volunteer run, and in addition to the congregation, the collective has founded a nonprofit wellness center which provides free to low cost mental health and wellness services

Who in your community is gathering those who are excluded, overlooked and marginalized? Who is trusted to do that holy work?

woman preaches to group
A singer leads at a healing justice event for the Root Church.

Shields, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary and Columbia’s divinity program, also has a master’s in social work. Before becoming executive director of the collective, she created one of the nation’s first denominationwide mental health programs at the National Benevolent Association, a ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

During her work in church organizations, she couldn’t help but see — and couldn’t “unsee” — the ways in which religious institutions have either actively harmed people, both inside and outside their congregations, or otherwise not lived up to their missions of spiritual and material care. Shields is a tried-and-true devotee (and former student) of the late James H. Cone, the Black liberation theologian who challenged white supremacist Christianity that justified slavery and segregation, criticized Black churches that depoliticized worship, and recognized Black Christianity’s radical potential.

In her career as a social worker, Shields understood that people damaged by churches that dehumanize queer people or expect women to fill the pews but not the pulpit might still seek relief in the church. They have been socialized to want or need a spiritual connection but may be wary about reentering a sanctuary.

So Root Cause Collective morphed into the barely year-old church, which might be best described as an experiment in exploring Black womanism, liberation theology and community building.

The vocabulary and structure of The Root Church defy the conventional. Attendees aren’t “members.” Services may be called “sacred moments.” Participants may read texts such as James Cone’s “Black Theology and Black Power”or Katie Cannon’s “Black Womanist Ethics.”

There is no denominational wing financing a capital campaign to build a brick-and-mortar presence, and rather than serving as a senior pastor from whom all direction flows, Shields pastors with a handful of “community chaplains,” all Black women.

According to Pew Research Center data collected in 2019 and 2020, 7 in 10 Black Christians in the U.S. say that combating sexism is key to their faith, and an overwhelming majority of Black Americans (85%) believe that women should be in senior leadership positions in churches. But only 28% of the Black congregants surveyed said they’d heard sermons opposing sexism from the pulpit in the last year.

And while almost two-thirds of Black Americans polled said that homosexuality should be accepted in society, a significant number of Black adults (51%) balked at their clergy officiating same-sex unions.

What Biblical passages resonate with your experience and empower you to act?

Drummers play traditional West African drums during the service.

That doesn’t make for a warm reception for those who identify as Black, queer and believers. And should Black worshippers attend predominantly white or multicultural churches, the disconnect may be different but still quite uncomfortable.

The Rev. Chalice Overy, one of the community chaplains who work with Shields, has seen the disconnection in real time. She began her ordination journey as a 17-year-old preaching in eastern North Carolina and has since occupied positions at both historically Black and predominantly white Baptist churches. During a previous stint at a Black church, she’d meet people and tell them where she pastored but hesitate to invite them to services.

“I didn’t think it was the safe place for them, because they were queer or somehow unorthodox in their beliefs. So I didn’t invite people, because I didn’t want them to have to lay down a part of their identity at the door,” she said.

But at the same time, she felt that Black queer Christians would feel out of place at progressive white churches as well.

“At a white church, Black members or would-be visitors would say, ‘Let me know when YOU preach, but the worship services are so white,’” she said.

“So in one place they might have to lay down part of their identity, their sexual orientation or their gender identity, or [in another place] they may have to lay down certain aspects of their culture,” Overy said. “For about four and a half years now, I’ve just been like, ‘Oh man, we need something else. We need something more.’”

The collective is now inching toward that “something more” by convening like-minded people for events such as the farm service. The Root Church has served about 100 people, linked through an email list and a web of personal connections. Shields had quietly attended a church where Overy pastored for about six months. Amber Burgin-Brothers, the creator of Elijah’s Farm, is also ordained and knew Shields through local divinity school circles.

As part of the October plein-air service, attendees gathered at Elijah’s Farm. Situated on former plantation land, the farm, a community agricultural ministry, is not far from Durham’s well-preserved Stagville state historic site — a once-sprawling antebellum plantation that housed more than 900 enslaved people.

Shields called the service a modern-day “hush harbor,” recalling the secret outdoor worship spots where enslaved people would assemble outside the fearful gaze of enslavers and define their own relationship to God.

For Overy, part and parcel of that project is making room for African-descended practices in the lives of worshippers and the theological canon.

“We have accepted the hermeneutic of a very small group of people, white men from Germany, primarily. And we’re saying that whiteness and oppressive models have convinced us that those are the only opinions that are valid when it comes to God. But I know God. My people knew God. My grandmother, my grandfather knew God. What did they have to say about who God was?”

Who in your community is silenced or excluded by conflicting commitments? Who notices and includes those who are left out?

families sit on a blanket during service
Amber Burgin-Brothers, creator of Elijah’s Farm, gives a testimony.

During the farm service, Burgin-Brothers gave her testimony of trying to ignore God’s call to become a farmer. She quipped, smiling, that there was never a call she didn’t try to ignore first. Knowing laughs reverberated around the yard, as children toddled under the watchful eyes of adults, toting mini-buckets of play tools. And a key component of the farm service was a blessing of children conducted by Wake Forest University professor Melanie Harris. An invitation to the blessing had been extended to all families, but particularly those whose families are often excluded from traditional church settings.

None of the invited queer families came to the blessing, but Shields took that in stride.

“I can’t promise that it’s a safe space,” she said, because safety is relative and she knows well the wounds that churches can leave. But she promised that “safer” is a goal of the utmost importance and that The Root Church, whatever it becomes, wants to listen and learn how not to duplicate the sins of the mainstream church.

How can you create “safer” conditions that invite people to test the welcome you offer?

Later, after participants were invited to roam the property and commune with the soil, a liturgical dancer sketched wide arcs with her legs and arms to the tune of Beyonce’s “Bigger,” whose chorus echoed The Root Church’s focus on growing together:

I’ll be the roots, you be the tree

Pass on the fruit that was given to me

Legacy, ah, we’re part of something way bigger.

Questions to consider

  • How does your congregation embody its most important commitments?
  • Who in your community is gathering those who are excluded, overlooked and marginalized? Who is trusted to do that holy work?
  • What Biblical passages resonate with your experience and empower you to act?
  • Who in your community is silenced or excluded by conflicting commitments? Who notices and includes those who are left out?
  • How can you create “safer” conditions that invite people to test the welcome you offer?