Monday, July 20, 2015

CR churches

A collection of small churches south of downtown Cedar Rapids speaks to the role houses of worship have historically played, and can still play, in resilient communities. Decades ago, when Cedar Rapids (and all other American cities) was a compact town, the residential areas around downtown featured a wide variety of Christian churches. Some of them--most recently, People's Church (Unitarian-Universalist) and First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)--have been demolished to make room for bland new commercial development. Both churches relocated to the west side in 2011. Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, formed in Oak Hill-Jackson in 1914, relocated after the 2008 flood from 824 8th Street SE (where it had resided since 1916) to the edge of town.
Former home of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church; from church website
That property is now part of a parking lot.

But others remain, continue to serve congregations, and are among the assets Cedar Rapids carries into our uncertain century.

Dallas May, writing on the Dallas-based Street Smarts blog (cited below), notes that houses of worship have special roles to play in the community:
Churches (at least in principle) offer a unique niche in a community. Churches really serve as the only institution where everyone is welcome. A random person off the street isn’t allowed to just walk into an elementary school, for example.... At Church I am connected to many people from all walks of life that there is simply no other way I would come in contact with.
In an earlier post, he adds:
God is found in the city because he is found in the people of the city who bear his image. The people who chat with other commuters on the train. The people who give generously of their time and wealth.... Hundreds of thousands of people who, each day, make small choices that--against cold logic, rationality and evolution--do good and loving things for the sake of their community and their city.
Rev. Eric O. Jacobsen (2012: 189-190) distinguishes church buildings by how they relate to the built environment around them. Embedded churches fit into pre-1945 human-scaled neighborhoods by being built to the sidewalk, and with little or no space between them and other buildings (e.g. for parking lots). Insular churches, typically built after 1945 in suburban developments, sit on large lots and feature large parking areas onto which their main doors open. Their architecture also tends to be more "utilitarian" than the grand style of older churches. All the churches in central Cedar Rapids fit Jacobsen's "embedded" category. However, the oldest and grandest Third Avenue churches have coped with the automobile age by expanding their parking areas into the surrounding neighborhood.

A number of small churches were built south of downtown Cedar Rapids, in the area known as Oakhill-Jackson, in an era when the predominantly residential neighborhood was thriving and populous. Eric A. Smith's history of Oak Hill-Jackson describes an ethnically-diverse, working class neighborhood in mid-century including most of Cedar Rapids's small black population (pp 32-35). He quotes his uncle, Clarence Smith Jr:
If there was any type of separation, it was more of an economic division. The community played, worked and went to school together. There were no pressures compared to today, everyone knew you in the neighborhood. All the neighbors checked on all the kids in the neighborhood. It was a type of global village. It was the sort of neighborhood where everyone in the community felt secure. (Smith 15)

Arguably the most historically important of the churches in Oakhill-Jackson is Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (pictured above), 512 6th Street SE, housing a congregation that has met on this site since 1872. In 2008 Preservation Iowa considered it endangered by medical expansion, but the MedQuarter Plan as evolved appears to me to allow not only the survival of the building but the potential for some residential development around it (see esp. the "Land Use Framework" on page 12 of the plan).

The building today looks rather lonely (compare to the 1931 picture at Smith 42):

The cornerstone was laid in 1931, replacing a smaller structure on the same site.

Smith interviewed long-time Bethel member Connie Hillsman in 2005:
Being one if not the earliest black church [Bethel] has remained a symbol of perseverance through all economies. Not a rich nor affluent church... the building has always been modest but membership included blacks of all of the earliest social and fraternal organizations. [It has served to]maintain the reputation of honest and hardworking families and was supported by the black community and the business community of Cedar Rapids (p. 40).
New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ meets in a 100-year-old building at 631 9th Avenue SE. That puts it on the other side of 8th Avenue from Bethel. 8th is a major trafficway which along with the mostly empty quarter to its north creates something of a barrier between Oak Hill-Jackson (as well as New Bohemia) and downtown.

The building was previously the home of Hus Presbyterian Church, which relocated to the southwest side in 1973, after having met in Oak Hill-Jackson since 1889.

The approach along 7th Street:

...leading to this beautiful entrance:

Oak Hill Jackson Community Church is 1202 10th Street SE, along the arterial that is 12th Avenue. The website is pretty barebones, but the building seems like it's been here awhile. The service length alone (10:30-1:00) suggests they worship in the Pentecostal tradition.

The main entrance is on 10th Street, appearing to be a more recent addition:

There are some modest stained glass windows facing 12th Avenue:

Down 12th Avenue is St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, 1224 5th Street SE, founded in 1874. The current church was built in 1904; the campus includes two other buildings. It's close enough to the river that it took on a lot of water in 2008, but has been completely recovered. Besides two regular weekend masses they do the "extraordinary form of the Latin rite" at 7:00 Sundays.

St. Wenceslaus also hosts the monthly meetings of the Oak Hill-Jackson Neigborhood Association.

There are also some smaller church buildings and house churches in the neighborhood. Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, 1030 7th Avenue SE, was built in 1965. 

The church at at 930 9th Street SE has no identifying marks. It may be Southeast Church of Christ, which is listed in some Internet phone directories but not in the old-fashioned paper one. The building dates from 1900; obviously the siding is more recent. The front door opens directly onto the intersection of the sidewalks at 9th Street and 10th Avenue.

There is a flourishing garden between the church building and the house next door on 10th Avenue:

By the 1980s the factories where Oak Hill-Jackson residents worked had closed, and the neighborhood deteriorated (Smith 98-99). But while grocery stores and other businesses disappeared when the houses were torn down, these churches remain. Public and private financial imbalance, energy costs or just plain individual preference are likely to push people back to the city center. In fact, just this month another new apartment building was opened in Oak Hill-Jackson, dedicated to civic leader Dr. Percy Harris. As this happens, the churches will be waiting, ready to resume their places as neighborhood centers.


Zak Hingst, "Iowa Sacred Places," Preservation Iowa,

Eric O. Jacobsen, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Baker Academic, 2012), esp. ch. 7

Dallas May, "Part 3: The Value of the Neighborhood Church," Street Smart: Leading the Way toward Dallas' Urban Future, 28 June 2015, 

Eric A. Smith, Oak Hill: A Portrait of Black Life in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (Amen-Ra Theological Seminary Press, 2006)

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