The power of the gospel: Can black churches survive turbulent times?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 28 2011 12:42 a.m. MDT

Walking into Calvary Baptist is like walking into Grandma's kitchen. Warm. Familiar. Loving. At one point in every sermon, Davis instructs the crowd to choose a neighbor, look into their eyes, and declare, "I love you, and there's nothing you can do about it."

The whole congregation opens up to embrace newcomers, old, weathered hands clasping pudgy baby hands, warm smiles and hugs all around.

When Patricia Otiede moved to Salt Lake City in 1991, a single mother with dreams of going to college, Calvary Baptist welcomed her and as one of their own. Over the next 20 years, she built her life around the church. A willow of a woman with smooth, dark skin and a commanding air, Otiede serves as an usher, teaches Sunday school and sings in the choir. Sundays she sometimes spends more than eight hours at the church.

"If you want to find me, come to Calvary Baptist Church," said Otiede, who now commutes to the downtown chapel from Taylorsville. "Monday through Saturday and Sunday, too."

Her devotion to the institution is not an exception to the rule.

"Most black church members don't just go to church on Sunday," Mamiya said. "They're involved in other activities during the week. Many of them take part in midweek Bible study, choir rehearsal and other kinds of community outreach programs. It's not just about spirituality, it's a social place where members look after one another."

But change may be knocking.

When he was little, Otiede's little boy was by her side, attending youth activities throughout the week, donning a miniature blue and gold choir robe to sing in he children's choir at community functions. But now 18 and a man, he's a once-a-week member.

"I used to drag him along," Otiede said. "He makes his own choices now."

Across all ethnic groups, the Millennial generation is less interested in religion, according to a 2010 report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Only 53 percent report being "certain" a god exists, compared to 71 percent of those born before 1928. The trend extends to African American youth, too — though they remain significantly more religious than the general population.

Among those who attend historically black churches, adults ages 18 to 29 read Scriptures and pray less frequently than their elders. Nineteen percent of African Americans under the age of 30 are unaffiliated with any religion, compared to just 7 percent who are over 65.

"The black church, like a lot of churches, is struggling with an aging population," Butler said. "They may not have a younger generation of people to fill the pews."

Furthermore, studies show African Americans born after the civil rights movement are less likely to attend historically black churches.

Interest also wanes as members gain more education, according to The Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life. Fifty-three percent of African Americans with a college degree attend predominantly black churches, compared to 63 percent of those with less than a high school education.

"They just don't see church as being this thing that can really help them," Butler said.

Davis is fighting the trend with youth clubs ranging from drama to pre-medical.

On a recent Sunday, teens with white gloves and painted powder-white faces transformed the chapel into a theater and performed a mime routine for a rowdy crowd of family and friends. The church also sponsors a mentoring program that matches youth with professionals in a field they've expressed interest in.

When the time comes for college, every active member of the congregation is eligible for a church scholarship. Davis doles out as much money as he can muster, starting at $1,000 each and moving up from there. Calvary has given Otiede's son, now starting his second year of college, $10,000 so far. For Otiede herself, the church footed the bill for a second bachelor's degree and a master's of health care administration.

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