Worshipping in Bolton Hill: Still racially distinct, churches are responding to the aftermath of COVID

The entrance to Mt. Calvary Church on Eutaw Place

Churches in and near Bolton Hill find themselves challenged to rebuild regular attendance and renew in-person activities after extended shutdowns and ad hoc arrangements that began in 2020 with the COVID 19 pandemic. Attendance is lower than before.

“11 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour in Christian America” – The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on Meet the Press, April 17, 1960

And while each of the five Christian worship centers in or on the fringe of the neighborhood proclaim both in words and deeds to be open to all, the churches we contacted all remain dominated by a single racial group. Three are overwhelmingly white, while two have black congregations. Even as workplaces, politics, universities and the military have opened up in the 60 years since Dr. King was quoted, racial separation in religious centers is still the norm in Baltimore and the nation. Dr. King’s church in Atlanta was a black church then and still is today.

Over the next several months, Providence allowing, we intend to connect with these and other places of worship within walking distance to enable Bolton Hill residents – those who are believers and those who are merely curious – to better understand what is taking place in our ever-changing Central West Baltimore community. If you’d like to assist in this project, please send a note: bulletin@boltonhillmd.org.

In Bolton Hill there are facilities affiliated with Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopal denominations. There is a Buddhist center on Park Avenue but, curiously, not a single synagogue, though once there were three; the nearest is in Reservoir Hill. A bit west there is Masjid Ul-Haqq, a Muslim mosque.

“Non-white members seem to feel welcome and comfortable in our parish,” said Father Marty Demek of Corpus Christi Church, the elegant Catholic church built in 1880 by a wealthy local family. But he acknowledged that those attending are mostly white and from a catchment area that extends well beyond the neighborhood to include worshipers from Baltimore, Howard and Carroll Counties. Black Catholic families are more likely to be found at St. Peter Claver-St. Pius V, located on Fremont Avenue in Upton.  The two churches do not interact, he said.

“All the parishes are open to all,” he said, but acknowledged that “attendance is terrible right now,” since COVID but also because of the intense focus on sexual abuse of young people within the Baltimore church.  He said the archdiocese has initiated a study, Seek the City to Come, which seems likely to result next year in closures or consolidation of some of the 57 parishes. “I don’t know if we’re in danger,” he said. “We pay our bills and the building (which he said cost $500,000 to build in 1885 but would run $50 million now) is in pretty good shape.”

The Rev. Andrew Connors, senior pastor at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church for two decades, said some historically white churches, heeding Dr. King’s call for integration, were guilty of cannibalizing black churches. More cross-church and cross denomination collaboration makes better sense, he said. “Consider the black experience. When you live in a mostly white society every day there surely is value in having a safe resting place for your family. We need to respect and listen to black institutions,” he added. “We need to interrogate our own whiteness and our cultural habits. Centering anti-racist practices is what’s important. This can lead to more multicultural institutions over time but doesn’t isolate that goal from this broader commitment to justice.”

Brown Memorial Presbyterian with its lovely Tiffany windows was founded in 1869 from the financial gift of the Brown family that generated a large portion of its foundational wealth from the slave trade. Nearby Memorial Episcopal Church also was founded in the 19th century by wealthy white Christians and remained segregated for most of a century. The two churches jointly in the 1950s created a recreation center for young people but allowed only white youths to participate. Eventually the partnership dissolved and Brown, which owned the building, integrated the center.

Although its congregation was white, the pastor said Brown Memorial was never a segregationist church. Booker T. Washington spoke there in the 1890s and the newspapers reported that he dined at the home of the pastor and his wife. “Our racist attitudes took different forms,” Rev. Connor said.

Only about 20 to 25 percent of Brown’s membership lives in Bolton Hill. COVID cut deeply into participation by that congregation. “This past Sunday,” he said in mid-September “was normal-feeling for the first time. We’re putting energy into face-to-face activities again.”

At Mt. Calvary Pentecostal Church in southwest Bolton Hill, Pastor David Grissom said his black worshippers come from all over, not just the neighborhood, and that many who formerly were in-person regulars before COVID “got used to being home, watching us on Zoom.” He said attendance recently has been 20 percent below what was normal (about 70) before the pandemic. It has led the church to revamp what once was a hardy youth program. Some programs are today conducted by conference call or on Zoom, Pastor Grissom said.

Mt. Calvary at 1204 Eutaw Place once was a white church, Central Presbyterian, built in 1900 in a classic Gothic style. That congregation moved east to York Road in Towson around 1950, but Pastor Grissom said the two churches sometimes have collaborated. Mt. Calvary calls itself a charismatic church and invites newcomers to “bring your shouting shoes. “The church was founded and always run by women ministers from its founding 70-plus years ago until  2010 when Pastor Grissom, who started attending as a child, became its pastor.

“We don’t knock on people’s doors, but our church doors are open to the community around us. We want to be a beacon of light. On Sundays you’ll find a minister in front to welcome our members and newcomers,” Pastor Grissom said.

The Rev. Grey Maggiano, rector since 2016 at the old stone edifice that is Memorial Episcopal, said these are “precarious” times for churches, and data supports his fears. 

A Pew Research Center study last year noted, “As recently as the early 1990s, about 90 percent of U.S. adults identified as Christians. But today, about two-thirds of adults are Christians. The change is largely the result of large numbers of adults switching out of the religion in which they were raised to become religiously unaffiliated.” The center’s projections show Christians shrinking from 64 percent of Americans of all ages in 2020 to as few as 35 percent by 2070. An even smaller segment of American Jews, about 20 percent, regard themselves as religious.

“When I came to Memorial, we were 95 percent white while now it is about 75 percent,” Rev. Maggiano said. “Given that the status quo of Church attendance is segregation, if your church is happy with the status quo, it is not likely to get more diverse. How do we best serve each other is always on my mind. It is essential to the future of the church. At Memorial we have sought to expand the bounds of the parish and the neighborhood both mentally and physically.”

The founding rectors of the church in the 1860s were slave owners and confederate sympathizers. In 2021 the church pledged to spend $500,000 over five years on what it called reparations for slavery. Grants have gone to institutions doing what the rector called justice-centered work.

Since the pandemic, attendance at Memorial has been unpredictable, he said. “That’s true across the country.” A challenge facing religious leaders is what has been called a “deficit mindset” that focuses on tithing units more than strong communities. It is easier to raise money in homogenous churches, even as participation declines, he said. But new people won’t come to a church that does not feel authentic and does not acknowledge that it is imperfect, he said. “Humility and authenticity, not pandering” is what is called for, he added.

Attempts to reach the leadership of City Temple Baptist Church on the south edge of Bolton Hill so far have been unsuccessful. Watching a live stream of their Sunday service on Facebook shows a sparse but enthusiastic black congregation.

–Bill Hamilton