Four decades ago, during the heyday of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in West Oakland, California, hundreds would show up for worship on Sundays. The grand sanctuary of the historic Black church, with its stained glass windows and elegant wooden pews, got so full, if you arrived five minutes late it was standing room only.
These days, as many Black residents have left amid the high cost of housing, the services are largely empty, save for a couple dozen faithful who return week after week, some of them from far away suburbs.
So it was that on a Sunday this fall; Pastor Todd Benson stood at the altar in the golden light of the stained glass and, addressing about twenty men and women and a handful of kids, he turned his sermon from the gospel of Matthew to an existential struggle for the Black community in West Oakland, and the future of the church itself: the housing crisis.
The average rent of an apartment in the city is now more than $2,700, he said, his voice rising. Housing costs are so high, adult children increasingly move far from their parents because they can't afford a home where they were born, he added. A handful of the elders in the pews nodded in agreement.
The old Victorians nearby, Benson noted, used to be owned by local residents. Now, they're often owned by unknown entities that rent them from afar. Only if people clearly understand the challenges facing the community, can they help address them, he said.
"Jesus reminds us today, just like he did 2,000 years ago, that we can't change anything until we truly see what it is," he said. "We can make things better. We can and will experience the reality of resurrection today in our communities."
The sermon at Bethlehem Lutheran is part of the congregation's efforts this year to go beyond its walls and fight the high housing costs that have left so many here homeless or pushed others away. For members of the congregation, they are motivated also by their desire to save the church itself from being lost to the same forces that have already swept away so many Black institutions in the community.
This year, working closely with Faith in Action East Bay, a faith-based organizing group that includes congregations across the East Bay and has long organized churches to take on issues like housing and violence, the church hired door knockers to walk the streets of the neighborhood, interviewing residents about their housing needs. Street by street, door by door, they ask tenants about the cost of rent, the percentage of their income they pay toward rent and about whether tenants have faced any harassment from their landlords.
The effort is also part of a statewide push by the group PICO California to get churches involved in the housing crisis under the mantra "Home is Sacred," in part by advocating to tighten renter protections and for the state to streamline the approval process to build affordable housing on land owned by religious institutions.
For Pastor Benson, who arrived at Bethlehem Lutheran two years ago as a white outsider from Union City, the efforts are compelled by a belief in Martin Luther King Jr.'s exhortation to create a "beloved community" — one in which everyone is cared for and is absent of poverty, hunger, and homelessness.
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