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On a recent Sunday, Pastor Morris Tipton greets his congregation with sturdy handshakes and big hugs. Tipton is the pastor at First Baptist Church East Nashville, a church nearly as old as the city itself.
It’s a small congregation, maybe 100 people. The church has been in this red brick Classical Revival-style building for 90 years.
“Not much has changed with this sanctuary, probably as long as I’ve been living, and I’m 52,” Tipton said, looking around at the worn wooden pews, the threadbare green carpet and the church’s magnificent pipe organ, original to the building.
Indeed, little has changed inside the church. But outside, the neighborhood has transformed. Luxury apartments sprouted up next door, a fancy hot yoga studio opened down the street. Young professionals are moving in as land prices soar. But for the better part of a century, this neighborhood has been a community of color. And as development takes hold, the churches that for generations were rooted in the neighborhood are leaving, selling their buildings to developers and following their congregants out to the edges of town and beyond.
Though First Baptist could sell for anywhere from $2 to $3 million, Tipton said the church will stay put. And he’s been approached to sell.
“I told the realtor: ‘I don’t even want to know what you’re willing to offer because I believe God has us here,’” he said.
Pastor Morris Tipton wants to bring white members into his historically black congregation.
Two miles away is Pastor Glenda Sutton. She’s led Family Affair Ministries since the mid-’90s, when she started preaching from her apartment at a Nashville housing project. When she bought this church in 2001, the neighborhood was rough.
“People didn’t talk to each other. There was just a lot of violence, a lot of anger. It was a very, very, dark place,” she recalled.
In fact, it had a nickname: Little Hell Hole.
But working in the neighborhood fit with the church’s mission. Recently, though, Sutton’s noticed that as the affordable housing goes, so do many of the families she serves. And their new neighbors are less interested in getting involved.
“It’s been more like ‘Can you move? Can you leave? We want the neighborhood,’” she said.
Directly across the street is record store owner Dan Balog. His shop is only about a year old, but he’s been in the neighborhood for nearly a decade.
“Now it’s $700,000 homes where there used to be $70,000 homes. In a pretty short amount of time,” he said from behind the register.
Balog said he hasn’t had much interaction with the church, but he’s not surprised it’s struggling to fit into the changing neighborhood. Even he feels the pressure as his rent keeps rising. He said that if the church were replaced with a commercial business, it could bring him more foot traffic.
And that might happen. In November, Sutton put the property up for sale, listing it for $3.5 million, seven times what the church bought it for in 2001.
Pastor Glenda Sutton’s church will benefit from the property sale, but she will have to leave the area she worked so hard to improve.
The church will benefit from the infusion of capital. But that means leaving the neighborhood Sutton worked so hard to improve.
“Our challenge is where do we, where do we go?” Sutton wonders aloud.
Back at First Baptist, Tipton has a very different idea about the future of his church. He wants to bring in new members — white members.
“I want to be intentional about being a multiracial congregation,” he said., “without losing anybody’s identity.”
Longtime churchgoer Sam McCullough, whose family membership goes back seven generations, is confident the church’s identity is solid.
“We will always be a historically black congregation,” he said. “That is what we are. You can’t erase our history.”
And so, despite going in two different directions, Tipton and Sutton have some common ground: a belief that something bigger is driving them.
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