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?

When the Rev. Angela M. Redman left her 20-year legal career to serve as executive director of the United Methodist City Society, she did not expect so much of her time to be focused on real estate management and development. But she spends a good part of each day doing just that.

Located in upper Manhattan, the United Methodist City Society is a 185-year-old agency that provides support to United Methodist churches in the greater New York City area. A group of Methodist women started the organization to provide meals, education and shelter to children in economically impoverished neighborhoods. The society went on to build churches and spread the faith. Today, it still holds titles to churches throughout the area.

One of them was the Trinity-Morrisania United Methodist Church in the Bronx. But where that church once stood is now the Trinity-Rev. William M. James Senior Apartments, with 153 affordable housing units for low-income seniors. James had led a revitalization of the church as pastor there in the 1940s and ’50s.

trinity apts ext.
The United Methodist City Society led the effort to redevelop a church site into affordable housing for seniors, including some who were formerly incarcerated.

A joint venture between the United Methodist City Society and the Bronx Pro Group — a real estate development and management company focused on affordable housing — the Trinity Apartments began accepting tenants in late 2021. But the project’s origin story goes back more than a decade, when the City Society’s then executive director, the Rev. Dr. William Shillady, first visited the church in 2008.

“When I first got to City Society, I visited all the churches we held title to,” Shillady said. A new apartment building had gone up across the street from Trinity-Morrisania, and the words emblazoned across the front door lintel caught his eye: “With God’s Love All Things Are Possible.”

That was Shillady’s introduction to the Bronx Pro Group. He contacted the developer and got a tour of the property.

In 2016, when the 12 remaining congregants of Trinity-Morrisania decided it was time to close the church, Shillady contacted the developer, beginning the transformation from a 150-year-old church in ill repair to a modern 12-story apartment building for low-income seniors. To be eligible, tenants must meet an age requirement and earn no more than 60% of the area’s median income.

tenant
Residents like Freddie Pagain take pride in decorating their homes.

The process was complicated, with intense negotiations between lawyers, Shillady recalled. Out of the eventual deal, City Society maintained a 25% share in the $88 million dollar development project, putting no money down, aside from the negotiating costs. Funded with tax-exempt bond financing, low-income housing tax credits and government subsidies, the project allows City Society to earn income — an estimated $50,000 to $75,000 annually — to fund additional mission work.

A developer with a mission

Since shifting its focus to affordable housing in 1998, the Bronx Pro Group has built more than 2,900 affordable units. Developing quality housing for low-income New Yorkers is integral to the mission of the firm, which was started by Peter Magistro, then a real estate developer and property manager, now retired. Aligning with his passion to cook for and feed the unhoused, according to his daughter, Samantha, he discovered he had a knack for affordable housing. After he completed his first such project in 2000, the company’s aspirational nod to Matthew 19:26 — “With God’s Love All Things Are Possible” — went over the door. It continues to grace many of the buildings that Bronx Pro develops and manages.

Samantha Magistro, now the company’s CEO, said this kind of work takes effort and faith. The project with City Society was no exception.

Although Bronx Pro had repurposed a vacant church before, this was the first time they were taking down a building with architecturally historic significance, and working with a partner who wanted to collaborate every step of the way.

All things being equal, from a business perspective, it’s better to have fewer hurdles,” Samantha Magistro said. “But business is not the only driving factor.”

For example, it was important to Shillady that the new building incorporate elements of the old church. Walking through the lobby and the public spaces, you can see reminders: in the wooden arches built into a ground floor common room, in the restored stained-glass windows above the mailboxes and the restored pews, where residents can relax on their way in or out of the building.

How can your mission create community that sustains your organization’s purpose?

“Bill [Shillady] wanted to keep the mission alive, and it gave a richness to the experience of developing this project,” Samantha Magistro said. “This work is hard, so you have to be fulfilled from it.”

The church may be gone, but the mission work of the United Methodist City Society is very much present.

“Affordable housing is mission, by bringing the marginalized into beloved community,” Shillady said.

In the case of the Trinity Apartments, not only are they providing sustainable housing to low-income seniors, but the property also dedicates more than a third of the apartments to supported housing, reserved for formerly incarcerated seniors.

Since his release from prison in 2019, 70-year-old Ruhullah Hizbullah had been shuttled among various New York City homeless shelters. He was in a shelter in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx when his name was picked in a housing lottery.

“They told me to pack my bags,” Hizbullah said, holding his dog, Duke, in his cozy studio apartment. “I signed the papers and got the keys the same day. Now I feel free.”

How can your property be reimagined for mission-driven development?

Rulhullah
Ruhullah Hizbullah, who shares a studio apartment with his dog, Duke, sits outside on the building’s 6th floor terrace.

The apartment was move-in ready: fully furnished, with linens and a kitchen stocked with pots and pans. Like the other tenants in the building, Hizbullah pays 30% of his monthly income in rent. State and city subsidies cover the remainder.

Another benefit for supported housing residents like Hizbullah are the wraparound services provided on-site by the Fortune Society, a New York-based nonprofit that has been helping people released from prison successfully reenter the community since 1967. Fortune Society rents office space in the building to support the organization’s broader mission in New York City. Among those working from the building are the case managers and staff who cater directly to the Trinity residents.

Providing a variety of services

“Each tenant has a case manager to talk with them individually to see what they want to work on,” said Carolyn Slade, who directs the senior housing program at the Trinity Apartments. Many of the resident have a history of homelessness and involvement in the criminal justice system.

“We try to help them integrate into the community,” she said. 

That could mean addressing mental health issues and substance use. Ongoing services include training in budget management so that residents know how to be financially responsible. And an important part of Fortune Society’s support is making sure residents are accessing the benefits to which they are entitled.

“We want to make sure they have the income and the means to take care of things, like rent,” Slade said. The aim is to prevent these residents from experiencing homelessness again.

Fortune has a nurse on-site to help manage mobility issues, high blood pressure, diabetes. A lack of access to primary care means many tenants have unaddressed health concerns.

Tenants receive support to connect with primary care physicians and assistance with transportation to their medical appointments. Fortune also works with an agency that helps tenants access home health care workers to assist with cleaning, food preparation or shopping if they need it.

But among the most important services Fortune Society provides — not just for the formerly incarcerated but for all the residents — is building a sense of community.

tenant meeting
Carolyn Slade, an on-site staff member of organizational partner the Fortune Society, leads a residents’ meeting.

That took time, said senior case manager Stalin Hunt, a Fortune Society employee for 20 years.

“When we first opened the building, the affordable housing tenants said, ‘I don’t want people like that here,’” Hunt said, referring to the other tenants’ concerns about the apartments reserved for the formerly incarcerated. “They were worried they would not feel safe or that their belongings would get stolen.”

But nothing like that happened, and the tensions began to subside.

The Fortune Society fosters community through events — such as a Valentine’s Day party and other holiday celebrations.

“You can really see people coming together as a community,” Hunt said. “People look out for each other.”

Resident William Muhamad Green, 63, said he also had spent a lot of time moving between the city’s homeless shelters after he was released from being incarcerated. He eventually became one of Trinity’s first residents and now experiences the type of community that builds friendships, like his with Hizbullah. He even takes turns caring for Duke.

When people challenge a concept or plan, how do you listen and form a response?

Green
Resident William Muhamad Green, who used to be a boxer and train boxers, works out on the punching bag in Ruhullah’s apartment. The two have become friends as well as neighbors.

Fortune offers health, sports and cooking classes, as well as support groups. At a recent monthly tenants meeting, Fortune introduced a new member of the team, who would be coordinating other recreational activities, such as chess tournaments, bingo, nature walks and a talent show. 

And there are plenty of spaces throughout the building where people can meet — like the sixth-floor terrace that offers a view of the Bronx skyline. On an unusually warm day in February, Hizbullah sat outside as the pigeons circled the coop on the neighboring rooftop.

“I like a place where I can meditate and read,” he said. “To free my mind.”

It may not look like a sanctuary, but the atmosphere is peaceful. A contemplative spot to call home.

Beyond serving congregations

“As church congregations are shrinking — and in some situations severely — the upkeep of the buildings is becoming too expensive for the congregations to manage,” said Redman, the City Society executive director. It’s important to explore how properties can be used differently to further ministry and generate income streams, she said.

This is not the first time City Society has been involved in affordable housing. Even in the early 20th century, the organization owned a number of buildings that offered housing to immigrants arriving in New York.

A later example is Grace United Methodist Church in Manhattan, which suffered a catastrophic fire in 1983. When City Society made plans to rebuild the church, the development project also included a 10-story building for low-income housing.

City Society owns that building outright. And while they hire a company for day-to-day management, maintaining the property is not for the faint of heart. Redman recently rattled off some of the reasons she spends so much time dealing with the property.

“We have five vacant apartments. That lowers the income stream. We have seven or eight tenants behind in rent. That lowers the income stream,” Redman said. “We meet with a management team and have a real estate committee. This is a significant part of what I do as executive director.”

NYC
A view of the Bronx from the 6th floor garden terrace of the Trinity Apartments.

There are definite advantages, she pointed out, to the partnership model that City Society has with the Bronx Pro Group. They maintain partial ownership in the property but don’t have to deal with all of those daily concerns.

But full ownership or a joint venture like the Trinity Apartments are just two possible models for churches. Since retiring in July 2022, after the official ribbon cutting at the Trinity Apartments, Shillady has invested his time in helping cash-strapped faith communities explore various ways to generate income.

“I’m really passionate about affordable housing and using church property for mission-driven development,” said Shillady, who now consults with congregations about how they can repurpose their properties. He also serves on the board of a New York City-based nonprofit called Bricks and Mortals, which helps faith-based communities utilize their properties in creative, sustainable ways.

One of the purposes of this member-based organization in bringing together religious leaders, lawyers, developers and brokers is to document the strategies religious institutions may use to sustain themselves and continue to provide essential services to New York City and surrounding areas.

There are a number of ways the thousands of religious properties in New York City can use their space to maximize mission. Among them are selling air rights to a developer or renting community space for theater or dance classes or educational groups, Shillady said.

“A church can sell its property and make a lot of money and walk away, whereas a church can negotiate a development where they could have new space in a mixed-used building to do missional work,” he said. “That congregation gets a new facility, partial ownership, income stream and usually some funds up front. It is not walking away but finding a way to be missional.”

Who are the community partners who should be at the table in developing strategies for sustainability?  

Questions to consider

  • How can your mission create community that sustains your organization’s purpose?
  • How can your property be reimagined for mission-driven development?
  • When people challenge a concept or plan, how do you listen and form a response?
  • Who are the community partners who should be at the table in developing strategies for sustainability?  

Dana Cassell is looking for a full-time job. I met Dana a decade ago, in her first year as part-time pastor of the Church of the Brethren congregation in our city. Ten years on, she has found that cobbling together full-time pay out of multiple part-time jobs is no longer financially sustainable. Dana, who is single, has also struggled to find a part-time role that will cover her health insurance.

I think of Dana each time I see an emerging consensus among church professionals that bivocational ministry is “the future.” As congregations and their budgets dwindle, I understand why ministry is moving in the direction of a clergyperson with one or more jobs beyond the pulpit. For some pastors, that’s a welcome revision of a role that can be isolating and insular. Ministry “beyond the walls” can offer possibility and hope.

But the turn to bivocational ministry as an answer to clergy shortage and budget woes is often shortsighted. Dana, as a bivocational pastor who directed a program to support people in bivocational roles, saw this firsthand.

In her denomination, many pastors classified as bivocational have supplemented their income with retirement benefits and savings. Others have served churches in a limited capacity while holding full-time jobs outside the church. But what about people with families? And can bivocational ministry support single people sustainably?

Responsible models of bivocational ministry require churches and denominations to consider factors of age, race, family size, location and marital status in policies for salary and health care benefits.

For unmarried people who receive no health care benefits from a spouse’s job, paying full or partial premiums cuts deep into a paycheck. Unlike married bivocational clergy, whose family units often have a second income, single bivocational pastors are on their own to negotiate the shortfalls of their lower salaries. Even in connectional polities, the decision to provide health care benefits to pastors working up to 20 hours a week remains voluntary on the part of the congregation.

And then there’s the issue of debt. The majority of clergy incur graduate school debt from a seminary or divinity school, but for Black pastors, the economics are even more stark.

Black seminary graduates are burdened with significantly more debt than their white colleagues. In congregational polities, Black pastors are less likely than their white peers to receive retirement benefits or health insurance through their congregational roles. For many pastors of color, bivocational ministry isn’t an option but a requirement to make ends meet. That can mean managing a 40-hour work week and a solo pastorate simultaneously.

Another friend, Heidi, reminds me that this scenario of bivocational is different from a call to two vocations. “I would not choose to work in multiple settings,” she tells me, “but I have done it out of necessity.”

This distinction — between bivocational ministry and multiple jobs — is often left out when I hear bivocational ministry lifted up as a model. How can congregations and denominations support clergy in finding meaningful and mission-driven work? If that work requires returning to school for further training, are institutions and churches prepared to offer financial support?

I know the struggles of part-time pastoring firsthand. I once served in a part-time ministry role, cobbling together a full-time salary from other jobs. I received a stipend toward half of my health insurance premiums but nothing for my spouse and children.

My contract included no retirement benefits or dental insurance. During those years, one of my cavities rotted so badly that I eventually had to receive a crown. The cost was astronomical, and the pain was constant. I relied on public dental clinics and dental schools for my care, often waiting months for treatment.

Part-time roles meant absorbing not only financial precarity but also the psychological burden of risk. This reality affected my relationship to the church. If we could not care for the health of our clergy, what did this mean about our commitment to laborers outside the church? How could we proclaim good news for workers when our church workers barely got by?

My denomination, Mennonite Church USA, has recognized the health care inequity for part-time pastors and pastors of color. In response, the Mennonite Church in 2010 launched The Corinthian Plan. Congregations, area conferences and agencies that choose to enroll in The Corinthian Plan contribute to a Fair Balance Fund.

Wealthier congregations and constituents pay more into the fund to support congregations that struggle to pay the full premium. This form of economic redistribution addresses the needs of small churches and of bivocational pastors.

That plan was lifesaving for Pastor Tomas Ramírez of Luz y Vida Mennonite Church in Orlando, Florida. In 2017, he was diagnosed with leukemia. The Fair Balance Fund provided additional financial support for his expensive and extensive cancer care, including a bone marrow transplant. Because the costs were shared across The Corinthian Plan holders, he also did not see a spike in his premiums.

Other denominations are looking for new and innovative ways to provide their part-time pastors secure and healthy futures. My friend Dana’s denomination, the Church of the Brethren, recently announced new guidelines for pastoral compensation. These include a minimum salary suggestion that takes into account inflation. They also look at housing costs with respect to ZIP code as well as calculating hours per week in a contract only after housing and pension costs are covered.

The church can’t turn to bivocational language as an excuse to underpay or underinsure employees. If we aren’t intentional about setting structures to support bivocational ministers, we can anticipate exploitation, exhaustion and failure.

The future of ministry may be bivocational, but it will be healthy, just and whole only if congregations and institutions work creatively and intentionally to redistribute funds, offer robust benefits and attend to the long-term stability of these roles.

In August, Ronan Rillovick boarded a Red Line subway toward Boston’s sprawling Dorchester neighborhood, a working-class bastion of triple-deckers, gentrification-spawned condos and a smattering of majestic Victorians.

The 30-year-old university sophomore and part-time shoe salesman had been on what he described as a long journey in life. He grew up in Wakefield, Massachusetts, a suburb in the state’s North Shore, in a “typical nuclear family.” But after years of what he called being untethered, and with his family no longer around, he was headed for the closest arrangement to his experience growing up.

“I wanted community with people. I don’t have a lot of family here anymore, so I just wanted to have a similar sort of community that’s sort of like a family,” he said.

Ronan
Ronan Rillovick, a resident at St. Mary’s House in Dorchester, laughs during a community meeting.

This would be his first day at St. Mary’s House, a butter-colored single-family home a block from the coincidentally named Ronan Park, and one of four intentional communities started by the Charles River Episcopal Co-Housing Endeavor.

The nonprofit, CRECHE for short, describes itself as creating “a community-focused alternative to the for-profit housing market that is rooted in relationship and mutuality: co-housing communities in which people live like families, sharing meals, common spaces, and the rhythms of home care.”

Residents in CRECHE households are chosen using a multitude of criteria, including spiritual cohesion rather than haphazard cohabitation. Participants in these intentional communities, as an alternative to protracted battles over responsibility for dirty dishes and control of the TV remote, commit to negotiating through conflict.

Rebekah Shore (left) and Jamie Shore (right), residents of Emmanuel House in Allston, Mass. clean the house’s kitchen after morning prayer on Nov. 21, 2022.
Emmanuel House residents Rebekah Shore and Jamie Shore clean the house’s kitchen.

Intentional communities are rooted in ancient teachings that describe a voluntary residential community designed from the outset to have a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork.

“It’s a group of people choosing not only to live together but to intertwine their lives relationally and to invest in each other emotionally,” said the Rev. Isaac Everett, CRECHE’s executive director.

Standing on the porch of another site in the network, Emmanuel House in the Allston neighborhood, he explained that the people here “grow together into the best versions of themselves by committing themselves to the discipline of co-living.”

Everett, a 41-year-old musician by training, has lived in an intentional community with his girlfriend in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood since moving to Boston from New York more than 12 years ago. He found the concept to be popular, with high demand from friends and congregants who wanted in, but there was nowhere to go. So he met with a group of “collaborators” in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts to raise money and replicate where he lived. CRECHE was the result.

What intentional practices could you bring into your community interactions?

brunch
Everett joins Trinity House residents Jess Navarette, Allison Sabean, Allison Brown, Troy Hillman and Kyrah Rodriguez for weekend brunch.

More than roommates

Since its incorporation in 2018, CRECHE has leased or purchased residential properties in the Greater Boston area, including the Allston and Dorchester neighborhoods, as well as the suburban city of Newton. Residents range from a cluster of four per house to six in the largest dwelling.

A fourth community was launched in November in cooperation with an African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is the first CRECHE partnership outside the Episcopal Church and the second with a Black-led congregation in Dorchester, Boston’s largest neighborhood.

Finding a place to live in the Boston area is more challenging than almost anywhere in the United States. In recent rankings, Boston tied with San Francisco as the second-most expensive U.S. rental market in the country, according to Zumper, a rental listing company. The average monthly cost for a one-bedroom is $3,000.

The average CRECHE household rent is $600 per person. The nonprofit calculates total rent for each house at $580 per person when a house is full and $640 per person when it’s not. Each household then divides that according to income, but the total for a four-person household is still no more than $2,560.

Affordability in a sea of housing instability is a major concern for church leaders, but it is not the determinative issue for who is selected as a resident. The arrangement is not for everyone, and the nonprofit is mindful about whom they select for the limited spaces available.

Residents are expected to cultivate relationships with their housemates and share meals, spiritual practice and decision making. They also are expected to engage with the surrounding neighborhood and in the life of the sponsoring parish.

How do housing costs affect the possibility for interaction where you live?

morning prayer
Everett joins Emmanuel House residents Peppet, Jamie Shore, Rebekah Shore and Lucas Boomsma for morning prayer.

CRECHE does not advertise. It does not need to. Word-of-mouth is strong.

“We work with an existing social network and neighborhood networks to create our houses,” Everett said. “We get probably five or six applications for every empty room. And we have a fairly long discernment process that we do with them involving multiple visits and a lot of conversation, because it’s really important to find someone who’s a good match for the culture of the house.”

Trinity House in Newton, for example, is designated for graduate students and rarely has an opening. Residents there, like all the other CRECHE households, are involved in their neighborhood. They host end-of-semester study days at the nearby Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill, prepare free healthy food for some of the poorest students in area colleges and universities, provide free printing, and offer meditative compline services.

While housemates in the CRECHE communities range in age from 16 to 61, the average age falls between 25 and 35. A CRECHE study of intentional communities nationwide found that young adults are the most likely demographic to join and that once they come on board, they tend to stay.

Building trust

On a crisp November morning, residents of Emmanuel House clasped hands and bowed their heads in prayer, as they do every weekday at that time. It’s a community that comes together around devotion and trust.

“It’s sort of this way of life,” said resident Matisse Peppet, 23, who has lived there for one and a half years. “I think living at the Emmanuel House in particular, we have kind of these structures and scaffolding that I’ve found really helpful in terms of living a life that is being spiritually directed.”

What spiritual opportunities beyond traditional worship and formation does your faith community offer?

Matisse Peppet
Peppet moved into Emmanuel House after returning to Boston.

Offering a tour, Peppet lingers in a kitchen large enough for communal cooking, surveys the chapel setup for morning prayer, and ends in a living room decked with couches and cushy pillows.

In her senior year of college, Peppet started attending Emmanuel Church, a historic Episcopal institution located on Newbury Street in one of the wealthiest areas of the state, the cornerstone of the diocese. Peppet, now a financial systems analyst, said she had felt unmoored and had moved home to Cincinnati but found herself drawn back to the Northeast, returning to Boston.

“I rejoined the church. They had a little advertisement that the Emmanuel House is looking for housemates. I actually had known of CRECHE, but I had never realized that CRECHE had a house that was affiliated with Emmanuel Church,” she said. “That was very exciting.”

Getting to know the person in the next room not as a mere companion but as a member of the family builds trust. And this sense of community is expected to extend beyond the house to the immediate neighborhood. Outreach is a mandatory requirement in CRECHE housing.

“We don’t just exist for our own benefit. We’re trying to serve our neighborhoods as well. The people who live within walking distance of our houses know that we exist. But are we improving their lives also? That’s a huge question that we ask,” Everett said.

The garden outside Emmanuel House sits in the shadow of St. Luke’s, a long-abandoned church that occupies the entire right intersection of busy Brighton Avenue. This patch of green is viewed as a living example of the household’s commitment to community. Though on this November day the grass has turned mushy brown and the trees are bare, the remains of carrots, green beans and corn from spring planting are still discernible in the garden beds.

Residents dine together most nights, and salad ingredients are plucked from the ground outside their door when the garden is in bloom. Produce is grown by both residents and neighbors living within a two-block radius.

“It’s a neighborhood starved for green space,” Everett said. “This has become the pivot from being just sort of a bit of a blight on the neighborhood to being a real center for the neighborhood, especially during the pandemic, when there was just a real lack of safe places together. Being able to offer an outdoor green space to the neighborhood has just been tremendous.”

Not long after arriving, Emmanuel House residents took over the empty church’s unused outdoor space. Working as a team, they pulled weeds, removed bottles and cans, and slowly watched the ground transform. They also built a lending library outside the house and added a doggy waste bag dispenser. A sandwich board announcing the availability of garden plots leads locals to this oasis in a neighborhood caked in concrete and teeming with car dealerships and detail shops.

How might you determine what your neighborhood is starved for?

Emmanuel House
A small garden and lights create a community space in the side yard of Emmanuel House.

“You know, every time I come by here, there is someone in this space either studying or gardening or watering their plants or taking engagement photos or doing yoga or walking their dog,” Everett said.

In 2021, CRECHE banded together with the diocese, which owned St. Luke’s, and Boston University School of Theology to reconstruct the long-boarded-up structure, relying partly on the Community Preservation Act for financing.

Plans for the space include turning the building into a collaborative ministry, where it will serve mainly as a safe space for queer and trans people of color, said Everett.

CRECHE leaders also envision a host of community activities taking place there, an extension of the house itself. Residents have volunteered to lead workshops on topics ranging from Sicilian folk songs to yoga to gardening for toddlers.

An alternative to isolation

When word went out this year that a rare spot had opened at St. Mary’s House, dozens of would-be roommates jumped at the chance to move in. It wasn’t just affordability and proximity to the subway or the massive backyard and wide, angled front porch that fired up interest. A critical selling point for some was that the six-bedroom house also comes with a sauna in the basement.

“Ha! That was definitely a selling point,” Rillovick said. But so too was the church, he said.

His reference was to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, the house’s partner congregation and namesake, a 25-minute walk away.

“I’m Catholic, but I participate in the Episcopal church that we’re associated with, or I’m starting to,” he said.

chair with books
A Book of Common Prayer and hymnal used in services.

The four-member household interviewed several eager applicants before selecting Rillovick to live there. He said his housemates have helped him get around and adjust to his new home, which he has especially appreciated since a recent running accident left him using a cane.

It also helps that one household member is a physician. Dr. Sharif Tanyos is originally from Egypt and grew up in Oregon. He moved in last January after living in other intentional communities for nearly a decade.

I think about how we live together in ways that are not isolated that I think counteracts the isolation of the nuclear family — that sort of rebuilds village life in a society that’s pretty atomized,” he said.

house interior
Emmanuel House residents commit to spending time with each other and with the wider community.

Tanyos met Everett at The Crossing, a Cambridge-based intentional community before that house was sold by the owner.

“So I reached out to Isaac , and he said there was an opening in this place, and I attended St. Mary’s Church and thought it would be a good fit.”

The church is attended by mainly Black and immigrant worshippers. Tanyos relates to many of their familial experiences.

Egyptians are much more likely to live in big extended families with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and not in the kind of isolated nuclear families that the U.S. has more commonly,” he said.

When his family moved to the U.S., that all changed. They relocated to a suburban community in their pursuit of the stereotypical American dream, a house with a white picket fence and little contact with neighbors.

“And that experience was hard. It’s hard for any kid growing up in an isolated nuclear family,” Tanyos said. “I remember as a child playing alone in my lonely suburban American house and not having the warmth of a big extended family around us. That experience shaped me a lot. Right now, we’re in a mental health crisis that is driven by a lot of things. But one of them is isolation, for sure.”

He does not view intentional communities as utopian but believes from his experience that they come close to being imperfect antidotes to isolation.

Trinity House
Trinity Parish rises up alongside Trinity House, a graduate student community.

Collaborating on a fourth house

Gentrification in Boston has made block after block unaffordable for an estimated 1 out of 4 residents, even with full-time jobs. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rent crisis worsened.

Intentional communities are on a scale much too small to serve as solutions to significant housing displacement, but proponents view them as exemplars of community cooperation and engagement. CRECHE’s latest project is the Jubilee House in Dorchester, where increasing numbers of Black and brown residents find themselves without homes.

Last year, the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond of New Roots African Methodist Episcopal Church reached out to her old friend Everett for assistance after her church decided to pursue a collective dream of establishing an intentional community.

“I was thinking, ‘I wish we could have a house where people could live and not be gentrified out of our neighborhood and, you know, live in community with each other,’” White-Hammond said.

A church committee looked at dilapidated houses nearby and explored purchasing a farm in New Hampshire, but all fell through. The plan was to find a house within a five-year period. But White-Hammond recalled, “One of our stewards said, ‘Why do we have to wait five years?’”

That’s when she contacted Everett.

The timing was perfect. CRECHE’s executive team had convened its annual board retreat to consider plans for expanding the organization’s engagement with marginalized communities. Everett recalls the moment.

“I get back from that retreat and I open my email and there was an email from New Roots saying, ‘We’ve been discerning a desire to do intentional community for the better part of a year now. Would CRECHE be interested in partnering with us?’”

They told Everett, “We’ve got the vision, we’ve got the passion, we’ve got the interest, we’ve got the culture. But what we don’t have is a home.”

Within a year, they did, and Jubilee House opened its doors last month, made possible by a combination of good timing and financial wizardry.

“I feel like it can only be God, the way that it aligned,” White-Hammond said. “And I’m really happy as someone who lives in the neighborhood and has seen so many houses flipped to turn into condos that are unaffordable for people.”

CRECHE moved fast over the summer to prevent speculators from grabbing the 1885 Victorian that would become Jubilee House. The unsung hero of this story is a longtime resident of a nearby co-op who late last year noticed that the house — which was badly in need of repair — was for sale.

“She had been watching all these big, beautiful houses on the block get sold to developers and flipped into luxury condos,” Everett said. “And she was like, ‘I can’t have that happen next door to me.’”

“She knew the seller and asked if she could buy it before it goes on the market. So she liquidated a bunch of her retirement savings, paid cash for the house, then held on to it for three months while we did our fundraising and then sold it to us at a discount. We just closed the beginning of September. And that’s the kind of network, ‘knowing your neighborhood and your neighbors’ kind of strategy that we have to employ in order to get ahead of the developers.”

Prices in Boston’s housing market are skewed by the purchasing power of corporate real estate companies and developers. Prime properties are scooped up minutes after going on the market. A recent investigation by WGBH’s Jenifer McKim found that in 2021 alone, business entities purchased some 6,600 single-family homes across the state, nearly 10% of all single-family homes sold. “That’s nearly double the rate of such purchases a decade ago, according to a GBH News analysis of data provided by the Warren Group, a real estate data analysis firm,” McKim reported.

Investors and other businesses spent more than $5.6 billion last year in Massachusetts buying these properties, most in cash, the investigation found. And therein lies the biggest lesson, said Everett: the importance of purchasing property rather than leasing, if at all possible.

CRECHE rents Emmanuel House and Trinity House from the diocese but owns St. Mary’s outright. Purchasing real estate in the Boston market on behalf of the intentional communities and those who can least afford rent will continue to be a major challenge for CRECHE’s leadership moving forward.

What are some collaborations that your faith community is being called to? What are some creative possibilities for resources?

cat
Hannah Liechty, a resident at St. Mary’s House, greets her cat, Squid, in the house’s kitchen.

Meeting a deep need

Everett said his faith and motivation began with an epiphany when two commercial airliners crashed into the Twin Towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I was 19 years old, working as a musician at the church across the street from the World Trade Center. And that was kind of my introduction to church work. I got to see in that environment the greatest service. And in the church, in all of its glory and all of its pathos, I saw what it means to rally for a community to respond to trauma and to care for one another.”

He said that care extends to the issue of housing and points to Episcopal Church teachings. At its 79th General Convention, the Episcopal Church declared housing to be a human right. But Everett does not believe that the church is doing enough to address the crisis brought on by soaring rents.

Is your faith community addressing housing as a human right? Is there more that you could do?

advent candles
An Advent wreath at Trinity House.

“The Episcopal Church and most churches are not growing in urban centers or even generally. Church attendance is on the decline. But we have just as much real estate, for the most part, as we’ve ever had, much of it that we’ve had for centuries. So we have this whole culture and organization that doesn’t have a ton of people and doesn’t have a ton of energy, necessarily, but does have a ton of real estate. What if we used what we have to meet this deep need and, instead of merely talking about justice, we actually put people in homes?”

Peppet, the Emmanuel House resident, also thinks about the intersection of social justice and co-habitation, but in more personal ways.

“It’s just fun living in a community,” she said. “This sense of getting to know people as they are and learning what it takes for my housemates to feel connected, and to figure this out together.”

Questions to consider

  • What intentional practices could you bring into your community interactions?
  • How do housing costs affect the possibility for interaction where you live?
  • What spiritual opportunities beyond traditional worship and formation does your faith community offer?
  • How might you determine what your neighborhood is starved for?
  • What are some collaborations that your faith community is being called to? What are some creative possibilities for resources?
  • Is your faith community addressing housing as a human right? Is there more that you could do?