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.
"The megachurch model is a predominant model now," Best said. "That's the goal of a lot of churches: to reach that level in terms of what they can do with regard to social programs."
In Charles, LifeStyles Inc., a faith-based community services organization affiliated with the black ministers group, launched a program one year ago to provide dinner and overnight shelter in churches for homeless people during the winter months.
Called Safe Nights, the program was modeled after the Warm Nights program in Prince George's. When it began in Charles, two churches participated. Now 26 are involved, and the organization was awarded a small grant from the county government.
One chilly night last week, Jazsma Speece picked up nearly a dozen homeless people in a large van outside a Safeway store. She drove them to a small African American church, where vintage 1945 Army cots were aligned in rows beneath the cross and the altar.
Speece prepared a dinner of bean soup and chicken casserole, buttered rolls and pumpkin pie. "Oh Lord, I love her like a mom," said Gloria Polizzi, 60, who has benefited from the program for months. Tears ran down her cheeks as she looked at Speece.
"If it wasn't for the churches and their support, a lot of people would be living in the woods," said another participant, Dean Stachura, 41.
An army of volunteers from First Baptist Church of Glenarden, which has a 7,000-member congregation, came several times this year to Nanjemoy, a severely impoverished rural area of Charles. They provided free clothing, household goods and books, as well as dentistry and other medical services.
Local churches were so impressed that they asked First Baptist to guide them in conducting their own social programs.
"It really was a blessing to see that there was a system that was in place," Blackmon said. "I think Charles County has the resources, but no one put the system in place."
Local officials have little history of funding faith-based programs, but there are signs of change. State Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said a church leader asked him to help fund faith-based drug counseling and housing programs. "They were talking millions of dollars," Middleton said. "I told them, 'Look, the dollars are very, very limited.' "
The county, whose treasury is smaller than that of inner suburban counties such as Prince George's, usually allots just $1 million to nonprofit organizations each year.
"I don't think there's been a willingness from the commissioners or myself to buy into their programs," Middleton said. But "I think in time you're going to see that change."
Like other candidates, County Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D) spent several Sundays stumping in black churches before the November election. He and other commissioners have been meeting recently with church leaders to discuss social programs.
Cooper "is white. I'm black. But he's my brother," said the Rev. Angelo Ellison, who left a Prince George's church two years ago to be assistant pastor at Blackmon's church. "I admire him and his efforts and his sincerity in changing the system in Charles County."
Church leaders view the recent election of the county's first black commissioners -- Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret) and Reuben B. Collins II (D-Waldorf), who were supported by black ministers -- as further indication that the government may grow more receptive to faith-based initiatives.
Blackmon recently met with Cooper to discuss building a megachurch. Cooper was receptive. "I think it's wonderful that a church sees a need," Cooper said.
So Blackmon is pressing forward with his planned 31-acre church campus.
"There's plenty of numbers to fill those buildings," he said. "I declare it."