Congregation elects to raze historic church

Aug. 17, 2013 @ 03:00 PM

For the Rev. Michael Robinson, being a part of the decision to tear down the church building that is home to High Point’s oldest African-American congregation has not endeared him to some in the community.
First Baptist Church on Washington Street, which was formed and organized by former slaves in 1871, has been deteriorating for years. The sanctuary, built in 1907, was declared unsafe and closed by the city earlier this year because of structural deficiencies in the walls.
The congregation recently decided to raze the sanctuary and the fellowship hall that’s attached to it, after concluding that it would be prohibitively expensive to restore the structure. 
“I’ve had the hate letters. People say, ‘Why are you doing this to our history? I grew up in that church. My family belonged to that church.’ Of course, when you ask them what their involvement is in the church these days, they say, ‘Well, I don’t attend any church,’” Robinson said. 
A demolition contractor has estimated that it will cost $76,000 to tear down the building, remove the debris and clean up the site. In addition, a company in Winston-Salem has quoted the church a price for extracting and restoring the 18 stained glass windows in the sanctuary: $102,000.
Robinson said some money has been raised, but he and other church representatives acknowledge that it will take a major benefactor to allow them to achieve their goals. 
“We need help. We won’t refuse any help. We hope our situation will touch the hearts of someone in a philanthropic way,” said Robert White, a church elder.
The church — officially renamed First Baptist Church Cathedral earlier this year — was beset with what Robinson terms mismanagement that allowed it to fall into disrepair before he became pastor three years ago. He said church representatives spent $46,000 on a new roof that wasn’t properly installed, for example. 
Now, the sanctuary’s east wall leans outward and the front of the building tilts toward Washington Street, he said.
It would cost about $650,000 to stabilize, repair and upfit the sanctuary and the rest of the structure to make it a full-fledged church building again, with a fellowship hall, offices and other space, Robinson said.
There was very little disagreement among the congregation about what course of action to take, White said.
“It was something we accepted because we’re being realistic about it,” he said. “I don’t think we have much of a choice. It was painful, but it’s tough love.”
Despite the closure of the sanctuary, the congregation was able to meet in the building’s fellowship hall until a mold problem forced them out a few months ago. They have since been meeting at the High Point Plaza hotel. Robinson said anywhere from 30 to 60 people usually show up for services.
White said the church’s goal is to find an existing building to move into in another part of the city.
“I don’t want to cast aspersions on Washington Street. We are looking for areas that are conducive to growth, maybe more so than Washington Street,” he said.
In the meantime, Robinson is continuing to search high and low for grants, donations and other any sources of funds to help with the demolition. He said High Point University already has been a significant help with the removal and storage of the pews from the sanctuary, as well as other advice and assistance.
No one is more appreciative of the church’s historical significance than White, 84, who preached his first sermon from its pulpit at age 14. The plan is to erect a cornerstone marker on the property after the building is gone that will acknowledge what it has meant to the community, he said.
“The knowledge of what transpired is the history. We just won’t have the building to relate, but the memories will always be there,” he said.