The choice for historically Black congregations in Edgehill and 12 South: stay or go
Originally published at 9:00 p.m. CT July 19, 2022 in the Tennessean.
by Liam Adams and Sydney Satterwhite
- Demographic changes in Edgehill and 12 South caused by development have affected membership for historically Black congregations
- Five historically Black congregations have left the neighborhoods, and one is currently moving
Some churches that have stayed wrestle with how to best provide for their futures
Kayne Avenue Missionary Baptist Church has been a pillar of the Edgehill neighborhood for decades.
It started a youth drama club, provided its space to the Youth United Community Choir and gave food to families in need, recalled the Rev. Jeff Carr, the congregation leader at the Infinity Fellowship who grew up attending Kayne Avenue after his family moved to the area in 1968.
“These churches were an integral part of neighborhood life,” Carr said.
But Carr and many of the people he grew up with no longer live in the area, which includes the neighborhoods now called Edgehill and 12 South.
“I can count on both my hands how many folks still live in Edgehill,” said the Rev. Harmon Stockdale, Kayne Avenue’s pastor. Membership was stable when the area was majority Black, but rapid development has flipped the demographics.
Kayne Avenue and a few other historically Black congregations have stayed, but at least four others have left while one is moving right now. Those departures, after providing spiritual support and social services for decades, leave the neighborhood with unmet needs and a forgotten history.
“Not only does the neighborhood change, but the story of the neighborhood changes. And the new story becomes the recognized, legitimized story,” said Phillis Isabella Sheppard, Vanderbilt University professor of religion, psychology and culture.
While this is happening elsewhere in Nashville and other U.S. cities, “the changes are happening almost overnight” in these neighborhoods, said Sheppard, who is also the director of Vanderbilt’s James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements.
The number of Black residents in the area decreased by 51% in the last two decades, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data for two tracts encompassing the area. About 10% of the area’s total population is Black, according to 2020 Census data. Meanwhile, the number of white residents in the area increased by 43% between 2000 and 2020.
The question becomes, “What do you do to get people in when you have a shrinking base of people who would even come?” Carr said.
As someone who is leading and building his own faith community and as one of the people who no longer lives in the Edgehill area, Carr said he can empathize with the churches he grew up around.
“It becomes a business decision,” he said. “To say, ‘How do I ensure longevity for the church?’”
The churches that left
Pastors of churches that have left or are leaving the area celebrate their new homes because they have allowed for new ministry opportunities.
At least five have moved – Tabernacle Baptist Church, Mount Gilead Baptist Church, Greater Christ Temple Church, Bass Street Missionary Baptist Church and Pilgrim Emmanuel Baptist Church. Second Missionary Baptist Church is moving right now.
“We have prospered since leaving 12 South” said Tabernacle Pastor Darin Freeman. “We miss 12 South. However, in all things, we have got to move forward and look ahead.”
Tabernacle moved two years ago to a lot on Charlotte Pike that’s more than double the size of its old location. It’s allowed an expansion of Tabernacle’s housing ministry and future plans for an adult day care, Freeman said.
Bishop Calvin Barlow Jr., pastor of Second Missionary, said he’s eager to see similar outcomes when it finishes moving into a new building in Old Hickory larger than its current one near 11th Avenue South. The church’s last service there will be Aug. 6, and its ribbon cutting in Old Hickory will be Aug. 13.
Barlow and Freeman both said they didn’t feel forced to leave. But they also acknowledged they felt limited in their choices as development intensified.
“They chip away at the Black church infrastructure,” Barlow said.
One example he offered was a computer lab Second Missionary ran out of its building for neighborhood kids. A neighborhood group collaborated with the church on the lab and the state provided grant money to help. Many of the kids who used the lab lived in a nearby condo building that was eventually bought up, causing the families to move.
“So when they left, my computer lab had nobody to serve,” Barlow said.
Freeman was confronted with the already apparent changes in the neighborhood when developers camped out in the church parking lot to try and speak with him or mailed cards with offers to buy Tabernacle’s property. Eventually, Tabernacle accepted one of those offers. Freeman explained it got to a point where Tabernacle could stay and deal with issues wrought by the changes, or use the money to build a bigger campus elsewhere.
“You’re between a rock and a hard place,” Sheppard said about the situation facing Tabernacle and others. “The congregants and those churches don’t really have a say in what the community is becoming.”
Tabernacle closed the sale of its campus in April for $5.5 million, according to Davidson County property assessor records. Of the other churches that left, Bass Street sold its building in 2014 for $1.75 million, Pilgrim Emmanuel in October 2019 for $3.6 million, Second Missionary for $3.5 million in December, Greater Christ Temple for $4.5 million in February and Mount Gilead for $5 million in April, according to property assessor records.
Mount Gilead moved to Hermitage, while the three others settled on the north side of town.
The churches that stayed
Historically Black congregations still in Edgehill and 12 South are experiencing the effects of new development differently.
Pastors at two of them, Watson Grove Missionary Baptist Church and New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, are adamant about staying.
“We don’t have any plans on moving. I should put in the (church) constitution, ‘You cannot sell the church,’” joked New Hope Pastor James Turner II.
New Hope is debt-free, and it has plans for an affordable housing ministry near its church building on Hawkins Street in Edgehill. Though many of New Hope’s members have moved away, many still commute on Sundays or tune in virtually. The latter was an indirect benefit of the pandemic, Turner said.
Pastor John Faison attributes some of Watson Grove’s success to its ability to attract new members, including white residents who are moving into the neighborhood. As a result, the church’s future is less precarious seeming.
“I believe we are called to be in Edgehill. Until God taps me on the shoulder, we will be in Edgehill,” Faison said.
However, Stockdale is less certain about Kayne Avenue, where the majority of members are
“How can you survive and thrive as a historically Black church if you have not laid the foundation to attract Black people and feed them the way they need to be fed in a community that is not all Black?” Stockdale said.
But the pastor, who is 38, isn’t prepared at the moment to move Kayne Avenue, partly because he’s sensitive to the fact many congregants remember when the church’s current building was constructed in 1968. The church itself has been around a lot longer than that, and will be celebrating 150 years at a service on Sunday.
Many of the historically Black congregations from the Edgehill and 12 South neighborhoods, both those still there and the ones that moved, have been around for similar lengths of time.
At one point in that history, these churches were all within a couple miles of each other, allowing them to foster an interdependent community. That is a bygone era, but the legacy hasn’t expired, said Carr, reflecting on his journey from growing up in Kayne Avenue to now running his own faith community on the other side of town.
“I would not be where I am had I not had that foundation,” Carr said. “In south Nashville, that foundation was community, it was camaraderie, and it was church. Going forward, I think everybody deserves something like that, some place where they can find home.”
Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or
on Twitter @liamsadams.