As Members Move Away, East Austin Churches Try To Hold Onto Their Roots

Mar 23, 2017

Pastor Clarence Jones has a meeting with a potential buyer in just a few minutes. He’s been having a lot of these meetings over the past two years, ever since church leaders decided to put the Greater Saint John Baptist Church up for sale.

“Hopefully it will sell and we can relocate,” he says, “so that’s what we’re looking forward to at this time.”

The decision to sell didn’t come lightly. Jones said the church has stood here, at the corner of Greenwood and Pennsylvania Avenues, since 1945, and several members were at first resistant to the change. But lately, he says, the neighborhood feels more crowded.

“We would love to have been able to stay here, but as you look around, there’s not any land to use as parking or else to build a larger church on,” he says.

Just across Pennsylvania Avenue, there’s a new house being built. Another bright blue two-story home is for lease right across Greenwood. The church sits on a dead end, and as more people move in, Jones says, parking for community events has become scarce. It is considering new locations outside the city limits in Manor.

“We felt that that would be a good place to relocate,” he says. “Lots of people moving in, and right now the land is not quite [as] expensive as it is here in Austin.”  

In fact, Jones’ own family recently left Austin for Manor, as has much of his congregation. His wife, Brenda Jones, says when she was growing up, the neighborhood around the church was predominantly African-American. In a sense, she says, the new diversity is a good thing. The church is open to everyone, but she hasn’t felt welcomed by new residents.

“They don’t want us to have the loud music, the worshipping hours, so it’s time that we should move,” Jones says. “It’s really about the time, you know what I mean? It’s time for the church to spread our wings.”

Embracing The Change

Another church a couple miles east has already moved.  St. James Episcopal Church left its old home on MLK a few years ago and moved to a spacious new facility on Webberville Road. Renette Bledsoe, senior warden at the church, says they deliberately stayed in East Austin.

“That’s just simply the historical foundation of this church, and sure, the church could have moved someplace else, but that is not what the people wanted,” she says.

Bledsoe says the church follows a philosophy of “radical hospitality,” making a point to include people of all ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations. St. James was originally founded in 1941 as a space for African-Americans who, at the time, weren’t welcome at Austin’s white Episcopal churches. Bledsoe said the church’s 16 original founders actively recruited a more diverse congregation.

“People made an effort to go out and invite others to come and to worship, people that may not have looked like them, to invite them to come in and to worship,” she says, “and then more people invited people to come in.”

Today, Bledsoe says some members commute from as far away as Burnet or Taylor. The church also regularly hosts interfaith events, provides services for the homeless and holds a weekly service in Spanish.

Still, some say the loss of nearby residents makes it hard for East Austin churches to hold onto their roots.

Quieter Communities

Nefertitti Jackmon is the executive director of Six Square, a nonprofit that works to preserve and celebrate African-American heritage in Central East Austin. The group’s office sits down the street from a Methodist church on San Bernard Street. Jackmon says on Sunday mornings, the neighborhood is transformed.

“There’s cars parked everywhere,” she says. “There’s a vibrancy with people coming and going as they’re worshipping, but you don’t see that during the week, and it’s really unfortunate.”

Nefertitti Jackmon, executive director of a nonprofit that works to preserve African-American heritage in Central East Austin, says she hopes to see creative uses for churches that are struggling to retain membership.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

Jackmon says she hopes to see creative uses for churches that are struggling to retain membership, uses that would keep them active throughout the week. She’s hopeful about a new city program that would allow houses of worship to rent out space to artists as a source of revenue.

“I’ve long thought about that, how can we partner churches with other nonprofit organizations looking for space,” she says. “Many [churches] need the revenue because they don’t have the large congregations anymore.”

Back at the Greater St. John Baptist Church, Pastor Jones says he hasn’t given much thought to what might happen to the property once it’s sold.

“We really just want to get as much as we can for the property and then move on,” he says. “I know that most places, they’re putting up condos and apartment complexes, so we’re thinking that that may be just what happens here.”

Jones says the thought of leaving East Austin is bittersweet, but he thinks wherever the church moves, his congregation will follow.