(RNS) Twelve years ago I started to notice oblique changes to the rhythm and fabric of “the village of Harlem.”
First came the glass and steel luxury high-rises like the one that sprang up on the opposite corner from Second Canaan Baptist Church, my family’s home church on 110th Street and Lenox Avenue.
Then Whole Foods opened and heads really started to turn.
Before we knew it, Harlem, the once historic African-American enclave long considered the heartbeat of black culture, started to lose key parts of its spiritual soul.
The neighborhood has long been home to numerous historic and not-so-historic houses of worship of nearly every size and type. Here you can find congregations of Muslims, Hebrew Israelites, AMEs, Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals and everything else in between.
So who cares if a few churches have to be razed to make Harlem “great again,” right?
The block right across the street from my family’s church once housed a local baker and a host of other little stores frequented by people in the neighborhood. But the powers that be sought to build luxury apartments, too expensive for most local residents, and destroyed all of the local flavor of the neighborhood.
Those who endured harrowing heroin and crack epidemics and fought to keep the dignity of their community are not the primary beneficiaries of the new, rebranded Harlem. Now even their houses of worship are being gentrified out of existence.
Second Canaan’s majestic beaux-arts building stands silent and empty, awaiting demolition, and my soul laments.
Growing up, I commuted with my family from Westchester County into “the city” to go to church each Sunday. On Tuesdays, my mother and a host of aunts and cousins made their way to Second Canaan for choir rehearsals. On Saturdays, my siblings and I spent the afternoon at church for Junior Ushers meetings.
That building was a place filled with families and friends who when moved by the Holy Spirit shouted for joy, their voices echoing in response to rousing sermons and moving spirituals.
Many members were South Carolina transplants who made their way to Harlem during the Great Migration, just like my great-uncle, the Rev. John P. Ladson, and my maternal grandparents, Jeremiah and Lucile Bobien, who founded the church with several others in 1947.
Who will remember that its pulpit once hosted the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, civil rights legend and former pastor of Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church of Christ (the mother church of Second Canaan), and Dr. James M. Washington, noted theologian and historian?
Will they remember that musical icons like Billy Preston once served as a guest organist, and that Roberta Flack, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson all came to worship there?
My lament is also punctuated by the fact that my home church is being torn down the very year I became an ordained Baptist minister.
Even with Second Canaan’s rich spiritual history, it is challenged with a shrinking congregation and a large, old building that is difficult to maintain.
Developers prey on churches just like Second Canaan in crowded urban real-estate markets across the country. In this case, the church is not actually going away, but the historic corner building it called home since the 1950s has been sold for its air rights to make way for yet another “luxury housing” development on the block renamed by New York City “Rev. John Ladson Place.”
The church is expected to be located in a much smaller, less august space on the lower floors of the new tower of privilege and displacement.
With the destruction of Second Canaan and churches like it, we lose more than just buildings. In this growing trend of buying up and razing historically African-American churches to make way for new urban developments, we lose parts of our heritage.
Just like in the Book of Joshua, our churches stand as our “12 stones of Gilgal” for the generations of tomorrow. We have to figure out how to preserve and build upon the industrious and community-oriented legacy of our African-American elders.
They transformed palatial movie theaters, vacant synagogues and concert halls into houses of worship where we learned how to connect with God, organize for freedom and build communities.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Second Canaan developed major housing projects that provided affordable housing for Harlem residents. That big fancy building on the corner occupied a pivotal place in the fabric of the community by providing affordable day care for working parents and adult reading programs for those who wanted to improve their education.
Now that church has succumbed to the wrecking ball so that some can afford the “luxury” of a Central Park view, the memories of African-Americans who helped a people overcome what money could not buy are diminished.
(F. Romall Smalls is associate minister for social justice at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and senior affiliate chaplain at New York University working with the Student Christian Movement. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram @romall06)