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What is the Church Without the Members?

A church that is concerned or its members have a powerful voice. Too often church becomes a game of musical chairs, with people not feeling a true connection of place of being. It was interesting to learn how the leadership of Prayer Tower addressed the concerns of the congregation during the transition.

“At first, the members were with the pastor. If the pastor says we ain’t moving, we ain’t moving.”

Then there came the change in plans. “When he spoke to them and said he prayed about it and they talked about it, then they got on board with it. There was a different transition because there were so many memories of 14th Street and so many families and so many years we had been there.”

We went through the depression years as a church family.

“They would tell stories of how the light bill was like $3 and they couldn’t even raise enough in offering to pay the bill. It was just that hard in those times.” He recalls.

“The ladies would come on Friday night and cook and sell dinners to Mercy Hospital and to Mound Park (now Bayfront Health) employees when those places were actually in existence.

They would cook dinners on Friday and take them down the workers that had the late shift. Sometime it would be after midnight, and we would still be at the church.”

Sleeping on the church pews and even on the floors was commonplace or the preacher’s kid. Welch says he spent many nights wondering “when we going home…” He chuckles.

“They would have the big pots of greens and cornbread smelling up the whole neighborhood, making dinners just so we could make ends meet for the church to have certain things. They would sell Sweet Potato Pies; Lord I’ll never forget that.”

Galvanizing the church brought the community to Prayer Tower. Even though the people remembered the hard times, they also knew God was moving them to a better place.

“My dad got up one Sunday and gave a sermon coming out of Exodus. He said sometimes we have to leave from a place where we were even though we were not in bondage.” He recalls. “But we were in bondage because we were struggling to keep the church…our church sat on a hill and you could put a ball on one side of the church and it would roll all the way to the other side.” Looking back, he can make light of the situation. “We were a leaning church. A few years after my dad became pastor we paid a company to come in, jack the church up and level it out.”

Letting go of our memories can be rough.

“We took some good pictures and some items from the old church and brought them over here. The whole altar and pulpit we took and now have it in our chapel. It’s over 80 years old,” referring to the furniture. “So we took that and some other memorabilia. But some things we had to get rid of. We had some chandeliers in the church. We had to tell them no, and we’re not bringing that over to the new church.”

A Time of Transition

“The younger members were excited about doing something new. Once we began, one thing my dad and developers wanted to do was make sure we were never to a point where we were outside of a sanctuary.”

Things had to be put in writing.

“We made sure to put in our contract that we want our church built before we have to move.” It was the first order of business. “My dad, being a very wise man in a lot of things and a man that consulted God in a lot of things…because a man who lacks wisdom should ask God (James 1:5)…he made that agreement in the contract and made them sign it stating that we would not have to move out of our church until the new edifice is built and we are able to move in.”

Everything was coming down fast, and it was becoming apparent that progress would not be slowed down or stopped. Welch recalls standing on their old property and being able to see 16th Street Middle School (now John Hopkins Middle).

“All the houses were gone, and we had members who stayed in some of those houses.” He explains how the church leadership worked to ensure those members were fairly compensated. “Because we had already negotiated (for the church) we were able to get good deals for those members.”

What Community Looks Like

Like most of the churches in the Gas Plant area, Prayer Tower was a community church. Most of the members resided in homes lining the streets surrounding the church. Welch speaks on the obligation they had to their members. “When the realtors were coming to negotiate with the families, we had a meeting at the church. We had some people who were legally sound and gave good advice.”

Professionals worked Pro Bono. “They told them don’t sign anything until you bring it to us and let us see it.” They wanted people to be educated and not accept pennies on the dollar for their property.

“The property was valuable although the house had doors hanging off.” Welch reinforces, “It’s the land that’s valuable, not the house.” He then explains how some residents had been doped long before the city came knocking.

“They had paid for the house twice because the mortgage companies had cheated them. They knew they weren’t educated. They told them, you have to take out this extra mortgage because you didn’t pay on time. There were a lot of things that weren’t above board but we had some lawyers that got compensation for them and the way they did some things they got a lump sum and some of them were able to buy a house flat out.”

I share with him that one thing I noticed when I was going through the city records was discrepancies in how much money people, were paid. “A lot of people didn’t get…what they were owed… because they did not have representation.” He states. “People with money knew the value of their property. They were smaller houses and the land was more valuable.”

For the poor black residents, it was a different story. “They kept telling us; well, the house is not worth that much. So they offered $13,000, and people would jump on it.” He blames the decisions on people not being accustomed to that much money at once.

“Some of them were like I ain’t ever seen $5,000, let alone $13,000. And sometimes when they came down there, they would have cash or a cashier’s check already made out. They would tell the people all you have to do is sign here, and it’s all yours.”

The Same Tactics Are Happening Today

We discuss how gentrification is happening in neighborhoods like Palmetto Park and other predominately black neighborhoods close to Central. Elderly homeowners are being pressured into selling to developers. Survivors are giving up their inheritance for an easy buck.

“They come in and prey on our inability to understand. I have three realtors that go to church here, and I tell my members if you have any questions about fines, property appraisers, or deeds, please check with them first before making any decisions.” He adds, “We have to protect our elderly.”

Did the Move Cause a Change in Membership?

Prayer Tower saw a change in its membership, but it came in the form of an increase. Welch credits the growth to moving into a neighborhood that did not have a church nearby. Since then several churches have relocated to the area. St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church was originally located in Methodist Town, is now a couple of blocks away. Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church and Fifth Avenue Church of Christ, a spinoff of Twentieth Street Church of Christ was also new additions.

“Before our church was built or during that time Mt. Pilgrim was built on 40th Street and 5th Avenue. There was no Pentecostal church on this side of town. Once we got here, our membership grew. We’re still the largest Pentecostal church in this area with seating for almost 800 people. I do know our church was built before First Baptist Institutional, Bethel Metropolitan, or even Friendship Missionary Baptist.”

Friendship MBC wasn’t displaced from the Gas Plant area. Their new edifice came after they sold their second location to the school district for the expansion of Perkins Elementary. Before that, they lost their original edifice at 850 24th Street South to the expansion of I-275.

Churches use their membership roles as a matter of record, regardless of how many people are in the pews on any given Sunday. When I asked about Prayer Tower’s current membership he is very transparent.

“At the old church, our membership was about 150 to 200 on the books. Now we have 700 on the membership rolls.” He continues, “We have members on watch care, and we have members that are college students, but they tithe. On our financials, they do what they are supposed to do but on attendance, members are not here every Sunday and some attend sparingly.”

He gives an example, “On first Sunday we may have 175, on youth Sunday we may have

80 or 90. On 3rd and 4th we may have 120. It just depends on what’s going on. A lot of time from Sunday to Sunday it is a whole different group. I found that at most churches you don’t have that continuous attendance.”

Welch understands the importance of catering to the youth. “On our youth, Sunday the youth are totally in charge. They do everything, speaker, usher, praise dancers, choir, and we have excited and empowered them. We tell them; if you’re excited, invite your friends to come because you never know (who may come). The last youth service we had about 90 youths in attendance.”

Photo Credit 1: USF Commons

Photo Credit 2: Prayer Tower Facebook Page

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