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Harlem church

From the New York Times:

From the second to last pew at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Harlem on a recent Sunday morning, Sylvia Lynch, 80, lifted a hand toward the rafters and sang praises through a haze of burnt incense.

Her voice was steady and strong, as was her grip on the cane she leaned on as she stood and sang and peered over the sparsely populated pews, peppered mostly with older women with fancy hats and hair as gray as her own.

“I came up through Sunday school, and I’m still here,” Ms. Lynch said, taking a step into an aisle at the 104-year-old church after the last hymn. “Back then, it was packed. You couldn’t get a seat.”

All Souls’ Church, on St. Nicholas Avenue, and any number of the traditional neighborhood churches in Harlem that had for generations boasted strong memberships — built on and sustained by familial loyalty and neighborhood ties — are now struggling to hold on to their congregations.

The gentrification of Harlem has helped deplete their ranks, as younger residents, black and white, have arrived but not taken up places in their pews. Longtime Harlem families, either cashing in on the real estate boom over the past decade or simply opting to head south for their retirement, have left the neighborhood and its churches. Then there are the deaths, as year by year, whole age bands are chipped away.

Without a sustainable membership, and with no fresh wave of tithe-paying, collection-plate-filling young members, these churches have struggled to keep their doors open, to maintain repairs and to extend their reach in the community.

Some, like All Souls’, cannot afford a full-time minister, let alone operate a soup kitchen or clothes pantry.

“We’re seeing several funerals a year, and the new members aren’t coming in,” said Ann Mayfield, 58, senior warden of the vestry at All Souls’. “Sometimes we feel a sense of powerlessness in carrying out the responsibility we have for the community. It’s absolutely frustrating.”

The great historic churches of Harlem do not seem imperiled, and indeed, with their nonprofit housing and local economic development arms, some have fueled the demographic and economic transformation and resurgence of the neighborhood.

But for some of the smaller churches — which have served as anchors and havens in the shadow of the larger institutions — the fight to survive and stay relevant has been daunting.

“If we don’t have the teenagers and the younger people coming into the church, as the older people pass, who is going to take over?” said Raymond Stevens, 57, a congregant at All Souls’. “It’s an uphill battle. It puts a lot of pressure on the congregation because you have to dig deep into your pockets to keep the church open. Our congregation is older, many are sick, and I really don’t know what the future holds.”

The Little Flower Baptist Church, formerly on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, was forced to close because of dwindling membership and finances. At the Mount Morris Ascension Presbyterian Church on Mount Morris Park West, leaders are struggling to fill the pews and the church’s many programs and services. The pastor at Rescue Baptist Church on West 123rd Street said that his church was not drawing enough income to pay his salary, and that he had to take a second job working at a stand inside Yankee Stadium to make ends meet.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York has also struggled financially, and in recent years it closed St. Thomas the Apostle Church on 118th Street, among others, including Our Lady Queen of Angels on 112th Street in East Harlem.

At All Souls’, regular attendance for Sunday service is about 50, down from hundreds in decades past. When eight children showed up for Sunday school recently, the teacher described the showing as “huge,” as it was nearly quadruple the average class size. About 80 percent of the congregation is made up of “senior citizens,” according to members of the vestry.

Read the full story here.

RELATED: Blacks No Longer Majority In Harlem As Gentrification Continues

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