Church Copes with Black Flight from San Francisco

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An African-American church in San Francisco celebrates its centennial, even as large numbers of blacks leave the city. The church's "Wall of Black Heroes" offers an extraordinary history lesson.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

In a little over three decades, San Francisco has lost more than half its black population to the suburbs, the fastest drop of any large city in the nation. Some city officials are calling it an African-American diaspora. Today, one predominantly African-American church in the city is celebrating its 100th anniversary, even as it faces declining attendance. Nancy Mullane reports.

NANCY MULLANE: It's Sunday morning at Ingleside Presbyterian Church. In the sanctuary, sunlight streams onto the rose-colored cushions. Sitting in one of the pews, waiting for the service to begin is Jamie White(ph).

Ms. JAIME WHITE (Member, Ingleside Presbyterian Church): Everybody is so warm. All the other churches are so crowded. There's so many people - nobody knows anybody, but here everybody know each other. This is like one big family.

MULLANE: Heading that family is Reverend Roland Gordon. He's been the church's spiritual leader for the past 29 years, and this morning he calls the congregation together.

Reverend ROLAND GORDON (Pastor, Ingleside Presbyterian Church): (unintelligible).

MULLANE: As Reverend Gordon walked to the front of the sanctuary, the six-member choir wearing long, bright blue robes leads the congregation in singing.

(Soundbite of church choir singing)

MULLANE: For a hundred years, this church has served as a spiritual home for many in San Francisco's African-American community, but that population has declined. According to the U.S. Census Bureau since 1970, the black population in San Francisco has dropped from 96,000 to an estimated 47,000 in 2005. You can see it in the church. Toward the end of this Sunday's service, fewer than 75 people are sitting in the pews. According to one church member, in recent decades a quarter of Ingleside's congregation has moved to the suburbs and they haven't come back. Reverend Gordon says that loss impacts everything.

Rev. GORDON: It takes a group of people to stick together and just the reality of the fact that when you lose people - especially as a small church - it hurts the church.

MULLANE: After final prayers and song, everyone leaves the sanctuary and walks down a hallway past the threadbare carpet and patched ceiling to the church's gymnasium for a mid-day meal - barbecue chicken and ribs, macaroni salad and cake.

Inside the gym, the walls are covered floor to ceiling with hundreds and hundreds of images of prominent African-Americans and the texts of famous civil rights speeches.

Rev. GORDON: This is my first picture here of Muhammad Ali and then I start, you know, Joe Lewis, Jack Johnson - these are all heavyweight champions.

MULLANE: Reverend Gordon began gluing and pasting thousands of images onto the walls 27 years ago - hoping to inspire the young men playing basketball in the gym.

Rev. GORDON: You name the person - African-American - in this country, and I got them on this wall. And then I filled in with pictures of our own church family to make it as though - it's spanning history is the bottom line, and we are part of it.

MULLANE: At about the same time Reverend Gordon pasted that first image onto the wall of the gym, African-Americans began leaving the city in search of more affordable housing. Even Reverend Gordon was forced to move to the suburbs.

Rev. GORDON: We are friends, and so to lose friends - and many of them tried to keep contact as far as coming back but the commute is just too much - but it hurts; that's the bottom line.

MULLANE: One member, whose voice continues to fill the church on Sunday mornings, is Lillian Hamilton. She says the real bottom line to keeping the church alive is keeping a positive attitude.

Ms. LILLIAN HAMILTON (Member, Ingleside Presbyterian Church): Just stick-to-it-ness, that's what has retained these services for 100 years - that stick-to-it attitude.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MULLANE: Past and present members of the congregation will come together to celebrate the church's centennial. They will have a special morning service and a reunion dinner.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane in San Francisco.

(Soundbite of church choir singing)

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