A $20 million investment has been made in a new initiative to restore historic Black churches in the United States, which will help congregations like the one in Mayfield, Kentucky, that was hit by a tornado last month, killing more than 20 people.
Lilly Endowment Inc., which supports religious, educational, and charitable causes, contributed the money to the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund as seed funding for the Preserving Black Churches Project, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which established the fund.
The announcement of the Lilly Endowment grant was timed to coincide with Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday.
According to Brent Leggs, the fund’s executive director, the effort will help with asset management and supporting old churches in expressing their own stories, rather than just restoring broken windows or straightening rafters.
According to Leggs, the project’s initial special emergency money will go to St. James AME Church, which was established only three years after the Civil War and was devastated by the Mayfield twister.
With its sanctuary largely ruined and only 15 or so active members, many of whom are older, St. James AME needs all the help it can get, according to the Rev. Ralph Johnson, presiding elder of a church district that incorporates the congregation. After the war, when black people were no longer considered property of white people, black churches became increasingly significant.
“Once the slaves were freed, one of the first things they wanted to do was establish a church home.” They wanted to work out their spiritual salvation and have a place to gather, and they were also utilised as schools and other things,” he explained.
According to Leggs in an interview, black churches have been a key component of the African American community for decades of faith and struggle, and preserving them isn’t only an issue of bricks and mortar, but also of civil rights and racial justice.
“Historically Black churches deserve the same respect and stewardship as the National Cathedral in Washington or Trinity Church in New York,” he stated. The Trinity Church, which houses the graves of Alexander Hamilton and other historical figures, was built near Ground Zero and became a national emblem after the terrorist events of September 11, 2001.
Over the next three years, the project wants to assist more than 50 Black churches across the country, including ones that have been abandoned or are on the verge of being demolished, as well as those that are suffering from a lack of funds, ageing members, and declining membership. According to Leggs, while active congregations remain the primary emphasis, monies can also go to historic church structures that now house organisations like community centres or treatment programmes.
The fund has already supported churches such as Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white supremacist murdered nine parishioners during a Bible study in 2015, and Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, which was destroyed in the 1950s during the civil rights movement.