Legacy Can Lead to Life

Legacy. It is a word that I’ve been dealing with a lot as I move beyond my thirtieth year of pastoral ministry in one place. It is a word that resonates with me as I, like many clergy over these past few years of the COVID19 pandemic, seek to navigate the changing landscape of church in our present-day society. 

Legacy. It is also a word I consistently ponder as my passion continues to grow around the issue of churches preserving and using their property to revive and revitalize neighborhoods and communities. It is a passion born out of my own journey. A long journey of leading a congregation of fifty-five people once on the brink of closure—worshiping in a decrepit building in such bad condition that congregants had to go across the street to the police station to use a decent bathroom—but now finding itself as a four-hundred-plus-member, predominantly black, working-class congregation. A congregation with twenty different nationalities from across the world, having repurposed its church building and property to build a $60 million, ninety-nine-unit, fully affordable rental housing and commercial development project called the Beacon Center in Washington, DC. Yes, in the nation’s capital we did this—arguably the hardest city in which to do development because of the layers of bureaucracy and politics that occur. 

Legacy. It is a word, but even more so a reality for me that at sixty-two years of age sits center stage in my forward movement as I approach, as author Robert Wolgemuth appropriately titled one of his books, the Gun Lap: Staying in the Race with Purpose. I am particularly concerned about the legacy of church property and what is going to happen to churches finding themselves fighting to survive let alone thrive in the midst of crumbling edifices, shrinking congregations, irrelevant ministries, disintegrating budgets, enormous financial pressures from inside and out, the evolution of technology and hybrid worship, and alternative venues for the “fellowship of believers” to gather. If you are reading this chapter and this book as a church and civic leader, I know you are concerned, too. You are pondering legacy. 

If you are not pondering it, I hope you would. For in my opinion, too many churches are abandoning their legacy for a dollar. A dollar that doesn’t last nearly as long as many developers might persuade you to believe. As a former district superintendent in my denomination, the United Methodist Church, who pastored at the same time, I’m concerned that too many denominations are selling off property to keep their internal, outdated structural and staffing models sustained. And too many churches, desperate to get out from under the financial strain of keeping a dying ministry alive, are selling God’s mission out to money-craving developers. Developers who cannot possibly know the history and context of a historic place like a church and community—unless they’ve dwelt in or been woven into the fabric of that community and church for any significant period of time. 

So, the word “legacy,” for these and other reasons, has been swelling in my soul over these past several years, and over the time in which I’ve been asked to write this chapter for this very timely book. Through it all, I’ve come to believe strongly that legacy can lead to life! 

The Persons Delegated 

The word “legacy” comes from a late Middle English, Old French, and medieval Latin term meaning “person delegated.” If I go a little deeper, “legacy” describes a “body of persons sent on a mission”— ambassadors, envoys, or deputies charged with a commission. Those appointed by someone else in a last will, yes, but the persons charged with a commission to tell those of us with still much living to do that we are being delegated with fulfilling that individual or group’s wishes. We are the persons delegated to carry out a mission. A mission we are called to continue until God calls us to delegate it to others coming behind us. 

Little did I know on that bright sunny day in the spring of 1994, standing in the cleaners across the street from the church I pastor with a pile of shirts in my arms waiting to be cleaned, looking out the window and seeing the entire 6100 block of Georgia Avenue, NW, that God would begin pouring out a vision and mission that would really take off fifteen years later. Because I was one of the “persons delegated” to carry out a legacy. And little did the congregation of Emory United Methodist Church, affectionately known as the Emory Fellowship, realize that they were among the “persons delegated,” the “body of persons sent on a mission” charged with a commission, of fulfilling a legacy, the depths of which at the time we did not know. A legacy of ensuring that marginalized and disenfranchised people in our neighborhood and community had a safe and affordable place to lay their heads.   

From the start, as church and civic leaders, when we talk about church property and preserving the use of it for the common good, we’ve got to ask ourselves, “Am I the person delegated?” And our congregations or organizations have to ask ourselves, “Are we the persons delegated?” The people delegated to ensure that a mission given to a church or organization to bless its community in positive, life-transforming ways continues. If we are, we need to fully embrace the process. If not, we need to get out of this game and join another game. If we embrace it, however, do know that legacy can lead to life. 

It was hard to see that when we first started together as pastor and people at Emory Church, needing to revitalize an entire ministry, let alone the mausoleum-looking 1922 church building that sat atop what was known as “Vinegar Hill.” White flight had left the congregation and property in a bad way. A white church that had once boasted 1,500 members in 1950, Emory had dwindled to 30 people, predominantly black, by 1976. The Brightwood neighborhood, which was all white and did not welcome black visitors back in the 1940s and 1950s, had become predominantly black. With the civil rights movement of the 1960s, or what the late representative John Lewis of Georgia called “the Nonviolent Movement of America,” in full swing, upwardly mobile and economically stronger black families began to move “uptown.” Whites began fleeing to the suburbs. Government policies that made it easy for white families to purchase houses in the suburbs became the norm. Businesses moved where their primary clientele lived, and the Brightwood neighborhood, once strong and vibrant with activity, was left a shell of what it once was. 

Through our own ministry to people hungry and homeless on the streets around us, we had used our property to do transitional housing. We housed families in our church building as we built relationships with the private and governmental sectors to refurbish our former church parsonage to expand the ministry. Seeing that we were just scratching the surface in meeting the need, we looked to acquire more property in our neighborhood to house transitional families. 

We were being called to be a last line of defense, preserving life for those in the margins of society.

And right there, the vision of what would become the $60 million Beacon Center project was born. An example of what churches can do when they are willing to become the “persons delegated” to further a legacy born in a deep history that informs future growth. 

To our knowledge, never before had a church in Washington, DC, let alone a black church, undertaken a project this size—a project driven by the mission of a congregation as opposed to a congregation selling its mission to a developer. With that came obstacles. Church and civic leaders contemplating church development need to know and not be afraid of the fact that there will be obstacles when you are the last line of defense, called to preserve life and justice for the marginalized. But if you remain faithful, and lean into your history, your legacy can lead to life! if we are faithful to the history of our property, legacy will prevail. When in doubt, stick to the mission. Legacy can lead to life! 

We moved into the Beacon Center in March of 2019. All ninety-nine units occupied, a wait list of five hundred people—which has swelled to eight hundred today. And soon thereafter, the topic that began dominating affordable housing in the city—and that has now swept through our own annual conference in the United Methodist Church—is: How can we develop more church properties for community mission and benefit? 

How? Legacy. “Persons delegated” across the private, government, and public sectors to fulfill a mission. Legacy that is guided by history. Because legacy can bring new life! 

Joseph W. Daniels Jr. is the lead pastor of the Emory Fellowship in Washington, DC. He coaches and consults leaders and nonprofit organizations desirous of revitalizing congregations and communities through his company, the Ananias Consulting Group, LLC.

Adapted from Gone for Good? Negotiating the Coming Wave of Church Property Transition edited by Mark Elsdon. Published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Used with permission. Copyright © 2024 by Mark Elsdon.