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  First AME Zion Church on N. Vancouver, 1980.  Former Norsk Dansk Methodist Episcopal Church (Photo courtesy University of Oregon)
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 29 November 2023

It is a fitting message for a 161-year-old church, which has been located at 4304 N. Vancouver Ave. since 1962, a full century after its founding.

In some ways, the congregation reflects the surrounding historically Black neighborhood: With gentrification, attendance numbers are dwindling. The threat of COVID-19 decreased the number of worshippers comfortable with attending in-person, and most Sunday services are available by streaming.

“COVID really did the church a favor,” Payne told The Skanner. “If you look at the history of church, we have been self-centered. And COVID, via all the legislation, shut everything down.

"The church had to find a new way to reach people.

"Now that we’re free to roam around the country, it doesn’t mean that your nucleus of people are going to come back in the building. So for me, COVID did what we couldn’t do ourselves and that is to make us livestream.”

first black church med
The church remains lively, maintaining the focus on civil rights and social justice that has characterized it since its inception. But both leaders and attendees have come to question whether the aging church structure – large and stately though it may be – is the best use of the property anymore.

“We are moving forward with this thing called the rebirth of First Church,” Payne said. “I’d rather be part of the rebirth than something else.”

Better Use of Space

Church attendance in the U.S. is at a historic low: According to a recent Gallup poll, only 31% of adults across denominations report regularly going to a house of worship. Among Protestants, the number hovers around 40%.

Now, at First AME Zion, the question of how best to serve parishioners and the local Black community dovetails with housing shortages and rental markets that continue to price out residents.

And so the church has developed a new vision for itself as the site of a new, smaller ministry facility, affordable day care, affordable housing and homeless transition housing.

This will necessitate tearing down the landmark church.

“When we talk about the sanctuary, statistics show that after COVID, your average (church) attendance is about 65 to 75 people” nationwide, Payne said. “So for us, a sanctuary that can hold 300-plus is not needed.”

On Sunday, Payne described the complicated nature of such a transition by reading an email he had received from a colleague: “Such an exciting time, though certainly not without accompanying grief. My prayers are with you and your wonderful congregation as you stand at the precipice of something new.”

Payne added: “The message for the day: Just remember somebody’s watching you. And what we do will either bring them to Christ, or (cause) them to leave.”

A Growing Movement

Indeed, many eyes have been on the movement to adapt often valuable church land to better serve the public good. Earlier this month, Parkrose United Methodist Church hosted Housing God's Beloved, a symposium event that explored how churches can mitigate the current housing crisis in their communities. Delivering the keynote was Cedrick Bridgeforth, resident bishop of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church, serving the region of Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and the greater Pacific Northwest.

Bridgeforth, a dynamic speaker and Alabama native, has made his own spiritual journey accessible by authoring the books 'Alabama Grandson: A Black, Gay Minister's Passage Out of Hiding' and '20/20 Leadership Lessons: Seeing Visions and Focusing on Reality.' He preaches on a platform of anti-racism, and has stated that in working in a region with numerous White supremacist hate groups, focusing on health and housing are among the most effective ways to minister to a more just and equitable community.

“There are truly organizations that are out-churching the church,” Bridgeforth said in an interview earlier this year.

“And so our best bet if we want to reach new people, more diverse people and younger people, it's to align ourselves with those institutions, organizations where they are already finding spirituality, where they're already making community and having the impact that's important to them… And that's a total rework, a reframe of our mindset and our positioning. But if we're going to have deep and lasting impact, I don't see another way for us to do it.”

As First AME Zion’s plan takes shape, the church will work with an organization that specializes in helping church clients redevelop their properties.

“Logos Faith Development is a faith-based real estate firm,” Payne said. “This is important: We have not sold our property. Some individual churches have sold their property and have asked to have a presence still on the property. What we have done is, we have partnered with local faith development.”

Payne added, “This is just the tip of the iceberg. This is a model that can be replicated. Maybe not cookie-cut, but the fact is that the offering plate of yesterday is not the offering plate of today. And so churches have to find a way to look at sustainability so that it can last.”

The next step is a meeting with representatives from Home Forward to discuss development plans.

“We’re looking at this and being optimistic,” Payne said, “and knowing that one day soon, we will have a legacy that will be able to continue on for the next 150 years.”

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