At its zenith, 250 people would fill the pews to worship at Bethlehem Lutheran, a historic Black church in Oakland, Calif. Today 25 parishioners file into the 100-year-old structure, where they face one of the biggest issues in their congregation’s history: a catastrophic housing crisis.

Bethlehem’s pastor, Todd Benson, said the congregation has been well aware of the issue because some Black members have fled the church’s West Oakland neighborhood for less-expensive housing. He said the average rent for an apartment in the city exceeds $2,700 per month.

“I have people who attend my church from as far away as Stockton, about a 77-mile drive, but they’re loyal to the church,” he said.

Few of the vintage Victorians near the church are still owned by locals. Instead, Benson said, out-of-towners have bought the properties and subdivided them into apartments. To help address the homeless situation, parishioners would take meals to the streets. They did what they could.

Then, on Feb. 24, 2023, a mother dropping off her children for child care at the church discovered the body of a 30-something woman lying on the church steps. Though the congregation had already been doing some work to address the homeless/housing crisis, Benson said the woman’s death “brought it home to us very personally. It helped create a different environment. It was affecting everybody in the congregation.”

Since that day the deceased woman’s mother and brother have occasionally joined the faithful for worship at Bethlehem.

“This whole experience has helped increase my level of faith.”

Jennifer Teer, a Bethlehem member, said she thought there was a reason the woman died at Bethlehem but only God knows it. “There is a spiritual connection,” she said. Teer has attended the church since 1975 and is considered its unofficial historian.

As she tells it, the church was founded by two sets of sisters who left a church named Bethlehem Lutheran in Louisiana and moved to the Oakland area to create a congregation that would belong to the growing Black community, many of whom also had fled the segregated South. The deceased woman’s family has ties to the two sisters, Teer said.

“This whole experience has helped increase my level of faith,” she added.

Organizing in the community

Benson arrived at Bethlehem following his ordination in 2021. Under his leadership the congregation is stepping up in new ways.

“We need to look at the truth about what’s going on,” he said.

To get to this “truth,” the congregation applied for and received an ELCA World Hunger grant, which allowed them to hire people to conduct surveys about the most pressing community issues. The grant provides $10,000 annually for three years. To date, 300 surveys have been completed.

“We go out in the community, and we connect with people,” Benson said. “We hear people’s stories, we hear what’s keeping them up at night, what’s causing them challenges in their communities, and then we try to address those challenges.”

He calls it organizing, not activism. “One of the reasons for me is our faith compels us to connect with each other,” he added. “Jesus calls us into community with each other. And organizing is all about establishing those relationships, building community, and using those community connections to make changes to benefit the community, that address people’s real needs.”

“We go out in the community, and we connect with people. We hear people’s stories, we hear what’s keeping them up at night, what’s causing them challenges in their communities, and then we try to address those challenges.”

The congregation works closely with the East Bay affiliate of the global community organizing network Faith in Action on the community surveys. Bethlehem is one of nine locally or regionally based sister organizations that range from Northern California down to San Diego and the Inland Empire, the metropolitan area east of Los Angeles.

The effort is also part of a statewide push by PICO California to get churches involved in the housing crisis. PICO California, a faith-based community organizing network, represents 500 congregations, synagogues and mosques with a combined membership of 650,000 people. It hopes to catalyze faith-based and spiritually centered people in the state to create systemic change for the most vulnerable so that all Californians thrive.

“Something more had to be done,” Peer said of the efforts.

That more includes hosting community meetings with Faith in Action East Bay to discuss the surveys. Members also hosted a community fair in April 2023, with diaper giveaways, food and games. And every two to three months, the congregation continues its practice of preparing food and taking it into the streets, where the homeless are.

Those efforts transcend the immediate mission of keeping people housed. “We do all we can,” Peer said, “to make sure that we are keeping the legacy of our Black churches alive.”

Cindy Uken
Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning reporter based in Palm Springs, Calif. She has worked at USA Today, as well as newspapers in South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and California.

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