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Historic African American church adapts to changing times

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At the intersection of 10th Avenue and International Boulevard in Oakland sits the historic, 74-year-old Williams Chapel Baptist Church. It’s in the heart of the San Antonio East Lake district, and its congregation is predominantly African American. Membership used to average around 800 people, but in the last 20 years, membership has gone down to about 500 as the demographics of the neighborhood have undergone massive change.

The African American community has steadily moved out of the district to other parts of Oakland and the Bay Area, and the church is struggling to attract new members within a community that is very different from the one it once served.

The chapel’s Pastor Anderson is standing at the pulpit in front of a small congregation on a recent Sunday morning. The worshippers are into the service. They’re standing up, belting out a psalm and grooving in place.

“How many y'all ready to praise the Lord?” the pastor asks the crowd.

As they finish singing, Anderson begins his sermon. The head pastor for the last three years, he’s preaching in a massive sanctuary to about 10 rows of listeners. Another 40 pews lie empty behind them.

“It’s been an uphill journey, you know,” the reverend explains later. “Ministry costs money and we are a church, a nonprofit organization, so we survive off of the donations that our membership gives.”

Pastor Anderson says the decline started in the 1990s. Several factors hint at the church’s dwindling membership: people might not have time for church, or religion just doesn’t play a part in people’s lives as much as it used to. But one thing can’t be ignored. In the last 10 years, the Black population in the San Antonio East Lake neighborhood has steadily declined while the Asian American and Latino populations have increased. For the first time, the people worshipping inside the church look very different from the people living in the surrounding area.

“For us to be a predominantly African American ministry six lights from Lake Merritt, on the corner of one of Oakland’s [main] streets – International – to be around other ethnicities than just being in a predominantly Black community with a Black church. I feel that it’s a blessing,” says Pastor Anderson.

So, Anderson is reaching out beyond the African American community. He says that is one of the only ways the church can grow because of the changing cultural dynamics of the neighborhood.

“We know what community we are in as of now, which is predominantly Chinese-Vietnamese," he says. "They are all God’s people.”

A changing community also brings its own problems with it. While the church is trying to bulk its membership back up, it faces another set of challenges from the outside.

“The graffiti is very, very strong in this community – just about every business up and down International. It’s gang-affiliated,” says the pastor.

Anybody driving down International sees this immediately. One of the first things Anderson did after becoming pastor was repaint the church.

“I just prayed and said, ‘Lord, I don’t want this church to look like an abandoned building in this community. Lord, please allow us to get the church painted,’” he says.

And he did.  

The church stands radiantly clean amidst the surrounding buildings on International, many dilapidated or abandoned. Still, Anderson decided not to paint one of the church walls.

“That wall is a reminder for all of us – and even for the community and even those who come by – to tell them, don’t forget what we once looked like,” Anderson explains. “Sometimes we stop caring; we stop making sure that we have the right spirit and the right enthusiasm to continue to be this light in such a dark community.”

When he says “dark,” he’s referring to the many challenges the neighborhood faces, like the graffiti, the recession, crime, and something else that has been growing in this neighborhood.

“The prostitution. It’s a different world at night,” says Anderson. “Many young girls are literally selling their bodies, some not because they want to, but because it is survival.”

One of the programs the pastor plans to start is an HIV awareness program, to target some of the new problems and residents in the neighborhood.

“I’m proud and honored to be in a community that isn't just African American. We are helping more than just African Americans," says Anderson. “We are helping all the races, literally. We are working with a Chinese Christian church that wants to be a part of our ministry.”

But Anderson is also mindful of the language barrier within the neighborhood.

“We are in the process of doing a tutorial and literacy program for the community,” he explains, “because we know the community we are in. English might not be their first language. So we may not have as many races within the walls Sunday morning, but we are touching so many lives after Sunday.”

As the neighborhood changes, so does this community institution. It’s been here nearly a century. It survived World War II and the huge migrations to and from Oakland. So Pastor Anderson thinks it’s likely the church will withstand these newest shifts, with a little faith.

Teresa Soares is a reporter at Mills College in Oakland. 

Crosscurrents Oakland