“All the ground is sinking sand,” Mother Francine Knight sings along with the congregation in the basement of Rescue Baptist Church.
She’s wearing a smart black skirt and jacket, wisps of her gray hair – she’s 82 — escaping from under her wool cap. She stands at a long table with seven fellow parishioners, each with similarly gray hair and life-weathered skin.
They usually hold services in the small red-carpeted space upstairs, with its five-row choir section and old wooden piano behind the pulpit. A large portrait of the founder, Pastor Frank Nunn, gazes over the 10 pews. But on this particular Sunday, the gas has run out in the heater, forcing the 11 a.m. service into the warmer basement. In the adjacent kitchen, pots of water boil on the stove to help heat the room.
“All the ground is sinking sand,” Francis repeats as the hymn continues.
This brownstone church on West 123rd Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards, a modest space with a shrinking congregation, faces problems found in many small Harlem churches. In the last few years, Harlem churches have seen a steady decrease in membership, resulting in fewer houses of worship in a neighborhood once said to have “a bar on every corner and a church on every block.”
“Honey, you ain’t seen nothing,” Knight says after the service. “When I came here in 1944, churches were in storefronts. They were next to bars. There was a church in every corner.”
“Harlem is a melting pot socially and culturally,” says Dr. Obery Hendricks, explaining Harlem’s historically large numbers of churches. Hendricks is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Research in African American Studies and the Department of Religion at Columbia University.
“Some of these churches were ethnically oriented,” he says. “Some people were Caribbean, others were African; they were the same denomination with a different cultural setting.” The Presbyterian Church of Ghana still sits on the same block as Rescue Baptist, as do two other churches
But others have disappeared. In the last three years, Harlem has seen the closing of Our Lady Queen of Angel Church, Greater Calvary Baptist Church and the Little Flower Baptist Church on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. On Nov. 2, 76-year-old Mount Moriah Baptist Church at 2050 Fifth Avenue was seized after a foreclosure auction last summer. “Mount Moriah Baptist Church is no longer meeting at this location,” reads a sign taped to the door. A “building available” ad covers the church’s welcome sign.
“Most of these smaller churches close because of rent and low membership,” says Deacon Albert Baldwin, 81, of Rescue Baptist. “We don’t have that problem because we own the space.”
Rescue Baptist, which celebrated its 86th anniversary in October, bought its current building in 1967, when it moved from 119th Street and Fifth Avenue; it also bought the brownstone next door, which it rents out to help pay the bills.
But many smaller churches rent their spaces and depend on congregants’ donations to pay the rent, Deacon Baldwin adds. This means membership directly affects their financial stability.
“We are keeping our heads above water with offering and the rent,” Deacon Baldwin said. “But the tenant just moved out, so we’ve lost that.”
Mary Baldwin, 78, Deacon Baldwin’s wife recalls the 80s as a great decade for the church. “We had good membership then,” she said. “Sometimes there were so many people, we had to bring chairs from the basement to seat everyone.”
But to Sister Corine Corbett, head of church finances for years, the 60s represented the church’s peak. “With collection, we would make on average $400 and something on a Sunday,” she remembered.
“That’s if people gave a maximum of $15,” Knight chimed in.
“But today we get about $235,” Corbett continued. “Sometimes we do $200. There’s not that many of us.”
With such decreased income, the church is unable to pay Pastor Anthony Harris a salary. “We don’t have funds,” he says. “We have bills.” Instead, he receives a “love offering” each Sunday, Knight explains: money from a tray passed around during the service along with the church’s collection tray. Harris has been forced to work as a sales associate at Yankee Stadium to bolster his income. In the off-season, he occasionally works as a parking attendant.
He receives no benefits “Small churches don’t have insurance,” he says. “We can’t afford stuff like that.”
What would happen if Rescue Baptist didn’t own its building? Deacon Baldwin looks over his eyeglasses. “You don’t need me to say it, do you?”
After the service, Corbett hands out pieces of cake wrapped in foil to each attending member, her ritual each Sunday. Upstairs, the now-heated main room waits to be used by another church, which pays to use the space while its own undergoes renovations.
Most of the Rescue Baptist’s members still cluster around the table in the basement, including Corbett, Knight, Deacon Baldwin and his wife.
“They are the four pillars of Rescue [Baptist],” Harris calls them. “They were there to elect Pastor Tyne, and most of them are in their 80s.” Harry J. Tynes was the pastor before Harris; he served for 45 years. Harris was Tynes’ assistant pastor for 12 years, until Tynes’ death just over a year ago.
On the wall, laminated photographs of church members, apparently taken in the late 70s to the 80s, show a different Rescue Baptist Church. Women are fashionably dressed in their Sunday best, big hats displayed peacock-like for all to see. Young men, women and children — age groups starkly missing at today’s service — are in evidence. The church choir, in full regalia, smiles at the camera.
“We had 25 or 35 in the choir,” Corbett says.
“I had to stop singing in the choir at one point because there were too many of us, “ Deacon Baldwin laughs.
Now, looking over the photos, they point out the people they remember. “She’s gone,” Corbett says pointing at one woman. “She passed.”
It becomes a common refrain. “He’s gone. She’s gone. She’s in a nursing home. She passed.”
“This woman played the piano until she died,” Corbett says pointing at a woman with her hair hidden under a blue head wrap.
“She was 92 years old,” Knight adds.
“She used to call on me to sing louder,” Corbett remembers, laughing.
Deacon Baldwin met his wife Mary in the church choir. Both from Georgia, married for 62 years, they are, at 78 and 81, the congregation’s oldest members. “They are the pillars that are still here,” says the Rev. Henrietta Shepard, assistant to the pastor.
The church has always played an important role in African American history and culture.
“Historically, churches were in many ways the only wholly-owned black institution,” Hendricks says. “It was the only place that black people could be somebody. Where you could wear a shirt and tie.”
Today, Hendricks believes, other institutions fulfill the church’s role . “It comes from the rise of the black middle class,” he says. “It’s to do with financial mobility and economic and social empowerment.” He sees this “rising secularization of African Americans” as a mostly northern, urban phenomenon, less common in the Bible Belt.
He also blames mega churches for crowding out more traditional congregations. “They start to attract much of the constituents of the smaller churches,” he says. “They are more of an audience than a congregation. These mega churches provide more entertainment and services.”
Rescue Baptist’s Pastor Anthony Harris points out, however, that even larger churches are facing decline. “The problem is all over. People just don’t go to church.”
Some have such small numbers that only the pastor, his wife, and perhaps three or four other members remain, says Harris says, who also occasionally preaches in Brooklyn.
“The younger generation is not into church,” Shepard explained. “And the older members are dying.”
The announcements read at the end of the service at Rescue Baptist list ailing members; there’s no mention of marriages or new births, evidence of its failure to attract younger members to replace its dying flock.
“When kids grow up, they move on,” Knight said. “Families used to stay in one place, but it’s not like that anymore.”
Nor do blue laws, designed to keep businesses closed on Sundays, help fill the pews as they once did, she points out. “Delicatessens were the only places allowed to be open. Now liquor stores are open, and people like to spend their Sundays at the laundromat.”
Harris’ goal in the next few years is to attract younger and middle-aged people to the church. He believes that communicating with them about contemporary issues, without pressuring them to join, is key. “Someone has to talk to them, he says. “Young people today experience a lot of violence. I want to remove them from a worldly realm and bring them to a spiritual realm.”
Deacon Baldwin believes that some people just don’t find what they’re looking for at Rescue Baptist. “They want a certain preacher or certain choir,” he says.
“And mega churches do not ask much of their congregation,” Hendricks observes. “In small churches, that’s where people learned their social etiquette in bonding with those in church. You don’t get that in large churches. It’ll contribute to loosening of social fabric, and could have a harmful impact on the raising of young people.”
Harlem’s gentrification has also had an impact, he adds. “Those moving in are not replacing those moving out.”
Congregants at Rescue Baptist, however, refuse to believe that the future of their church is dire.
“People just don’t’ go to church like they used to,” Corbett says. “But I know it’s going to get better.”
The sentiment seems universal. “God can do anything but fail,” Knight says. “Do you know how many churches in Harlem have failed? But we are still here.”