Academic journal article Community Development: Journal of the Community Development Society

Persistence in the Face of Change: Patterns of Community Service in Urban African-American Churches

Academic journal article Community Development: Journal of the Community Development Society

Persistence in the Face of Change: Patterns of Community Service in Urban African-American Churches

Article excerpt

Once considered "social buffers" against the economic hardship created by segregation rout neglect, churches that serve urban African-American communities today continue to engage in a wide array of programs. However, as bath residents and church members relocate beyond the urban core, these congregations must respond to the changing demands of urban residents while preserving the loyalty and support of increasing numbers of commuting members. What does the service portfolio of such churches look like, especially in the throes of such residential change? And how doe.s the mix of services offered by African-American congregations compare with all other urban congregations? This paper focuses on data from 117 congregations that serve African Americans in a Midwestern metropolitan region that has undergone serious disinvestment and population loss.

Keywords: social buffers, African-American churches, community service activities, communities of care, faith traditions


Policymakers have recently shown tremendous interest in the community service activities of religious congregations. Religious congregations have received new-found respect for the services they offer, particularly as these desirable programs and activities are seen as potentially lessening the burdens of government. Much of what we know about the prosocial activity of religious congregations, however, stems more from cultural familiarity and less from empirical research, Because religious congregations are exempt from publicly reporting details about their activities, our awareness is limited by the diversity and complexity of this subsector of nonprofit organizations.

Religious congregations have an obvious interest in expanding their services as an expression of their beliefs and values. However, most religious congregations are seriously constrained in their ability to expand their community service activities because of limited financial and other material resources. Most congregations in the U.S. are very small: fewer than 100 participants are typically in attendance at an average congregation on a principal day of worship. In addition, religious congregations are spending an increasing amount of their donation-derived income just to pay salaries and keep their doors open, and a growing number do not have full-time (or even part-time) clergy persons to serve them (Chaves, 2004). Such realities have underscored much of the debate in favor of increasing opportunities for religious congregations to gain access to government funding for their services (Carlson-Thies & Rogers, 1998; Green & Sherman, 2002; Sherman. 2001; The White House, 2001).

Others have argued that religious congregations are more realistically constrained by their own doctrinal priorities as centers of worship and religious teaching, Community service often takes a subordinate place in the activities undertaken by congregations (Chaves & Tsitsos, 2001). Or, as some have found, congregations may be more accurately characterized as "communities of care" that consider service "in the world" as an expression of their own faith and belief (Wuthnow, 2004), In general, religious congregations face very real limitations about how extensively they can be involved in service activities for the community at large.

These limitations are especially acute for congregations in neighborhoods that experience high rates of poverty and economic decline. Minority communities, in particular, are more likely to experience such material hardship, and increased demands are inevitably placed on the congregations located in these neighborhoods. African-American congregations, long a mainstay in communities that were subject to discrimination and alienation, are facing new pressures as members depart the inner city for the suburbs and the concentration of poverty increases (Jargowsky, 1997, 2003; Pettit & Kingsley, 2003; Wilson, 1987),

Despite such constraints, research suggests that congregations generally continue to provide services but often with a preference for commodity-based programs (food pantries, clothing banks, emergency cash assistance) rather than those that require the greater labor intensity of relational services (Chaves & Tsitsos, 2001), In fact, when people with low incomes go in search of assistance, they tend to view the services of congregations in this limited way as merely places for a "handout" (Edin & Lein, 1998). …

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