Church builds perseverance amid change

An Anacostia church unites to improve its neighborhood through education programs, while fighting gentrification with faith.

By Annie Stephens

It is a battle against urban renewal, circumstance and inner demons in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood. But ask anyone within the walls of the Union Temple Baptist Church, and their battle plan is something like this: keep improving, stay strong, trust in God, and carry on.

Energized: The Union City Baptist Church offers worshipers and community residents classes on everything from financial planning to HIV/AIDS prevention.

The Union Temple Baptist Church offers worshipers and residents classes on everything from financial planning to HIV/AIDS prevention. Photo courtesy of Union Temple Baptist Church and is used with permission

The church is a predominately African-American church in the heart of Anacostia, one of several low-income wards in the District churchgoers say was targeted for gentrification.

Associate Minister Alimayu Oding’s office is usually dark except for the light that streams in from the colored stained glass windows. He made no secret of the fact that his community is facing difficult times. Among the problems is the push for urban renewal of the District’s lower-income areas.

“Urban renewal means Negro removal,” Oding said matter-of-factly, noting the influx of a wealthier class of people who say they want to fix up the neighborhood. The changes being made in the community regarding development, he said, means that the church’s traditional role must change as well.

The church sits in a neighborhood struggling with unemployment, a high HIV and AIDS rate, poor public health statistics and a high violent crime rate. Oding said that gentrification — what he views as new development and an influx of white residents — in some ways, is the least of their problems. First, he said, the community residents have to work on the issues that make outsiders believe their neighborhood needs a racial makeover.

So the Union Temple provides a number of classes to work with community members to meet challenges head-on. Financial education and independence classes, HIV/AIDS classes and “Welfare to Work” programs are just a few of the efforts being made.

“You have to do concrete things, and you have to deal with the whole person,” Oding said. “For example, what needs to be done so that people can afford to live here, where they live already? If you don’t know, you can’t get ahead of the game.”

In addition to classes, the church’s staff relies on worship to help its parishioners. Using the Bible and its stories as a guide, Oding said people learn lessons they can apply here and now.

“Your ancestors got through this, your grandparents got through this, your parents got through this and this is how they did it. Extract those spiritual principles and through those, you can get through this too.”

He added, “It has to be something that the person can use in the middle of the week when they go back to their abusive husband, or go back to talking to their son who was just locked up.”

Outside of Oding’s office, three women sat in the back of the church chatting on a recent Tuesday evening. Nadine Feaster, Sandra Gaines and Mary Gerald shared the effect of Union Temple on their lives.

“This is like a filling station. We come here to get refreshed and renewed,” Feaster said.

They emphasized that church services and sermons help anyone and everyone from all aspects of life.

“These are not just sermons about God, God, God. It’s also about how He connects to us in our everyday lives. In our homes, jobs, community and family,” said Gerald.

Reverend Oding said he works to do this every time he leads a prayer, sermon or class.

“I am always hopeful that sooner or later the light will click on in somebody. You never know what makes things click but you just keep planting the seeds and God will worry about the harvest and the water… keep your hand to the plow.”

Despite the challenges faced in Anacostia, the pervasive feeling in Union Temple is hope. The emphasis is placed on education and encouragement to help people get ahead.

Feaster said the most important thing to do is to “take advantage of what’s being offered to you.”

“These principles work. You can overcome it. You can do it. It starts in the mind. You got to make up your mind. There are lots of resources here, and they work.”

It’s not all just programs though. Oding, Feaster, Gaines and Gerald emphasized that they are also helped by the power of God and the power of being around friends.

“When you are around people who think like you, you feel it. That is one of the greatest gifts that you can have, is to have that feeling.”

A large part of the effectiveness of the Union Temple is its status as an institution within the community and the accepting nature of its congregation, Oding said.

“This is like a hospital. If you’re sick you come here and you get well. Some need a major tune up, some need a minor tune up and some need a major overhaul,” Gerald added.

Feaster said that many in the church worry that the gentrification movement will drive away the community on which the church is built as worshippers leave the neighborhood. But both Pastor Oding and the three women affirm that the church is an institution that is here to stay. In unison and with conviction they say, “We shall not be moved.”

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