Megachurch Presence in Birmingham Schools Sparks Tension

 1566149472 
1568970038

Rev. Patrick Sellers is pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in west Birmingham.

Sherrel Wheeler Stewart, WBHM

Church of the Highlands, Alabama’s biggest megachurch, has expanded into the inner city, leasing space at two Birmingham schools. But there’s been pushback in the community, some of it highlighting a racial divide.

The Birmingham Board of Education recently renewed the church’s lease for three more years at Parker High School and another campus at Woodlawn High for about $1 million combined.

The issue was decided at a contentious meeting earlier this month.

Two board members objected for a variety of reasons. One complained about an ant problem, saying it was the church’s fault for bringing in food on the weekends. Another opposed the school system signing any long-term leases on school property.

Parker High School parent Hazel Thompson told board members at a recent meeting church services interfere with weekend school activities. She said the decision to allow the church to rent school space is all about the money.

“Ya’ll don’t care just as long as ya’ll are getting a buck, a dollar,” Thompson said. “It’s about a dollar. Selling our children out for a dollar.”

But others, like school board member Sandra Brown, say Church of the Highlands has been a plus.

“They’re doing good things in the neighborhood. I see no harm in it. That’s good,” Brown says. “If they’re going to bring people in that have never been to church – that’s good.”

Underneath this debate are some deep-seated concerns on the part of black church leaders that have been in west Birmingham for decades.

Even before The Church of the Highlands established a west Birmingham Campus, members often served the community there. Here they prepare and serve food after a tornado hit on Christmas Day 2015.

Sherrel Wheeler Stewart,WBHM 90.3 FM
Long before Church of the Highlands established a west Birmingham location, members often served the community there. Here they prepare and serve food after a tornado hit on Christmas Day 2015.

The congregation at Church of the Highlands across its nearly 20 campuses is mostly white. Patrick Sellers, pastor at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in west Birmingham, says the megachurch has not worked with other churches in the area, including his.

“I think it would be good to partner with those local churches that are within those communities already. Don’t come in to draw from them and dry them up.”

Many black churches struggle with shrinking congregations and limited resources.  Sellers says it’s tough for some to compete with megachurches that have lots of members and plenty of money for ministry.

At Church of the Highlands West, a band plays on stage with brightly-colored flashing lights. A team of young “praise singers” wears jeans and sneakers. Sellers worries urban churches won’t survive if enough members leave to join the megachurch.

Ohio State University Sociologist Korie Edwards, who studies race and power in churches, says that tension between megachurches led mostly by white people and urban churches is common.

“Churches that are led by white people and run by white people don’t tend to work with black people and black leadership,” she says.

The pastor at Church of the Highlands West declined to be interviewed for this story.

Sellers says regardless, his church will continue its work in the community, such as feeding the homeless.

He says black churches are a foundation of the community. If they go, he says, so does the neighborhood.

 

Secretary of State investigating Bessemer for potential voter fraud

While rumors of election fraud or irregularities have lingered in the city for years, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill confirmed to WBHM his office is looking into allegations of voter fraud in Bessemer this election cycle.

Local health officials plan to increase monkeypox vaccinations

Health officials will soon begin offering intradermal vaccinations, reaching more people with less vaccine.

Combating gun violence remains a top focus of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

As violent crime in Birmingham and the surrounding area continues to increase, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, Prim Escalona, uses a variety of tools and strategies to get firearms and bad guys off the street.

Some 3rd graders in local schools could be held back under new law 

This is the first school year that third graders who do not read at grade level by the end of the school year must be held back in that grade, rather than passed on to fourth grade. The Alabama Literacy Act was passed several years ago, but its implementation was delayed because of the pandemic.

How one Birmingham custodian preps for the first day of school

When the kids are away, the custodial and maintenance staff in schools work all summer long. One custodian told WBHM about what it takes to keep the kids happy and healthy as they trade sunshine for fluorescent lights.

Dollar store workers are organizing for a better workplace. Just don’t call it a union.

Fired up by a labor movement that’s seen big union victories recently, dollar store workers are organizing in their own way to improve work conditions.

More Front Page Coverage