Correction to This Article
A Dec. 12 Metro article about African American churches in Charles County mischaracterized the membership of Ministers Alliance of Charles County and the Vicinity. The organization is composed primarily of black ministers but also includes some white and Hispanic ministers. The article included a photo of Warren W. Hoster III that was incorrectly credited to Post photographer Andrea Bruce. Staff photographer Mark Gail took the picture.

Megachurches Migrating to Charles

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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Rev. Rodney J. Blackmon has a vision. He wants to build a megachurch along a rural road in Charles County.

He sees computer labs, playgrounds and athletic facilities. There would be classrooms to train entrepreneurs to become millionaires. The sanctuary would seat 2,500 people, and the chapel would hold 800 more.

Blackmon's vision is altogether new in the exurbs of Southern Maryland, where sprawling subdivisions have replaced tobacco farms. His church in Charles has ballooned from 35 congregants when he took it over six years ago to nearly 500 today.

"When I first got here, you didn't hear too much about African American churches," said Blackmon, who runs Christian Unity Baptist Church in Waldorf. "Ever since then, churches have been popping up everywhere, and they've been growing."

As black families migrate south from the District and Prince George's to Charles, African American churches are expanding in number, scale and ambition. The growth mirrors what happened when African Americans migrated from the District into Prince George's in the 1970s.

"The people came first, and the churches followed. That's the pattern," said Ronald Walters, director of the University of Maryland's African American Leadership Institute. "I would imagine you're going to have the same syndrome repeated in Charles County that you had in Prince George's, which is to say you're going to have a rash of African American churches that are fairly well-appointed institutions."

To accommodate the growing population, churches in Charles are adding community service components, many of them looking to the megachurches in Prince George's as a model.

Megachurch leaders in Prince George's have been teaching their counterparts in modest black churches in Charles how to organize programs for the homeless and clean-up efforts in poverty-stricken areas. They also have been advising them about successfully winning government funding for faith-based initiatives.

The number of new faith-based social programs "has jumped dramatically," said Sandy Washington, executive director of a Charles alliance of black ministers. "We've said, 'Listen, there's some basic needs.' "

African Americans have almost exclusively driven the rapid growth in Charles. The county's white population remained relatively stagnant between 2000 and 2005, while its black population increased by more than 50 percent, according to census estimates. Blacks now make up about 34 percent of Charles's roughly 139,000 residents.

African American megachurches -- roughly defined as having more than 2,000 worshipers -- have been rising in suburbs across the country, in such places as Atlanta, Chicago and Houston. Their large congregations generate huge resources, which allow them to do significant social missionary work.

The reach and ambition of these churches have raised the expectations of congregants at smaller churches, said Wallace D. Best, a professor of African American religious studies at Harvard University.

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