WHEN LINCOLN TEMPLE, a church in the Shaw neighbourhood of Washington, DC, closed this year, it signalled the end of an important chapter in African-American history. Founded in 1869 by a group that included many newly freed slaves, it became a hub of the civil-rights movement. In the 1950s one of its earliest members, Mary Church Terrell, led successful sit-in protests against Washington’s segregated restaurants. In the next decade the church was used as a marshalling ground for marchers. It attracted famous preachers. Roberta Flack sang there. More than a thousand people once attended Lincoln Temple’s Sunday services.
By 2018, after decades of steady decline, that number had dwindled to a dozen—if the pastor was lucky. In September the redbrick Romanesque Revival church, erected in 1928 to replace an older building, held its last service. Lincoln Temple, part of the United Church of Christ, is not unique. According to Sacred Spaces Conservancy, a Christian non-profit that uses city data to count church closures, Shaw has lost around 30% of its churches—most of them with predominantly black congregations—since 2008. In Capitol Hill it reckons over 40% of religious properties have closed.
One of the reasons behind the disappearance of Washington’s churches is familiar across the West: fewer people are going to church. But as in other big cities, that change has been exacerbated by the departure of African-Americans to the suburbs. What began in part as a search for more space and a better life has been accelerated by gentrification.
In 2015 the proportion of black residents in Washington dropped below 50% of the population for the first time in decades. Many of those who left took their religion with them, as the mushrooming of churches in some Maryland suburbs shows. Some tried not to. Jeanne Cooper, who attended Lincoln Temple for five decades, says many congregants would drive in from the suburbs on Sunday; she did so herself until the church’s last service. But as parking spaces were swallowed up by development, or claimed by new residents who had lobbied the city for parking restrictions, the journey became too much for many of its ageing members.
Elsewhere in Washington, old churches have been flattened or developed to make apartment blocks. Shaw, where Victorian row houses sit alongside renovated industrial lofts, has become one of the city’s trendiest neighbourhoods. Demand for land is high. But Mrs Cooper says the church’s management team, which she leads, hopes to continue renting out the building to groups that serve the area’s poor. “That way, it almost feels as if the church is returning to its original purpose,” she says.