Virginia church closing creates reparative gift to historically Black churches
When Bethel United Church of Christ in Arlington, Va., closed its doors, new opportunity emerged.
Upon earning substantial funds from selling their building, the congregation created a Legacy Committee to determine how to distribute the funds.
Kristen Wheeler, the committee’s president, and Peter Rich, its treasurer, offered over $350,000 in gifts for churches and initiatives within the Potomac Association of the UCC’s Central Atlantic Conference at the Association’s fall meeting Nov. 18 at Pilgrim Church in Wheaton, Md.
They presented a gift of $240,000 to the 11 historically, predominantly African American churches in the Association as a way, Wheeler explained, to engage in restorative and reparative justice and attempt to heal from historic wrongs.
“One thing that the Bethel board decided was that this was going to be a gift with no strings attached,” Wheeler said. “We are leaving it up to the Association to decide how it’s distributed, and we hope that it does a lot of good for some underserved congregations.”
The Potomac Association will establish a committee for distributing the funds.
‘Part of a connected church’
The Rev. Perzavia Praylow, interim pastor at Plymouth Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., accepted the gift with gratitude for “the act of generosity and restorative justice” on behalf of the 11 congregations.
“What they have modeled is what it means for all of us to be part of a connected church. What happens in one congregation impacts what happens in another,” she said. “Although we have been shaped by past history, there is a calling for us today to engage in just acts of giving and being in the world. And so, we have this seed to be used for restorative acts of justice moving forward to help and support the mission, ministries and the witness of predominantly, historic African American congregations.”
Wheeler noted the significance of being part of the Bethel committee’s decision, having previously worked with others in the Association to develop the “Resolution Calling on United Church of Christ Local Churches to Witness ‘A White Supremacy-Free Zone’ and Confronting White Supremacy,” which was passed by the 34th General Synod.
“To me, giving this money was a way to say, ‘This is how we live into that resolution,’” she said.
Funding for ministries
The committee gave a second gift of $120,000 to the work of the Potomac Association to be equally divided between the Stanley Fund, which offers assistance to Members in Discernment; the Justice and Witness Committee; the Higher Education Committee; and the Association board.
Moderator Yvonne Hinkson received the gifts on behalf of the Potomac Association.
“Your gift, one of the first of its kind, demonstrates your love for the work of the United Church of Christ,” she said. “We thank the Legacy Committee for its generosity and pray for all of the members of Bethel UCC, that even though the church is no longer in existence, they may still feel part of the Potomac Association and the United Church of Christ and know they are welcome in any of our congregations.
“We acknowledge that all gifts come from God, and we pledge to put the gifts to good use, supporting the work, the ministries and the growth of the Church. We also pledge to be sound stewards of the gift, seeing to its proper use and praying for its increase.”
Closing a church
Bethel UCC decided to sell their church building in 2018 when they lost access to the only parking available around the church building, and the congregation began renting meeting space at the Arlington Church of the Brethren. Around that time, Bethel’s pastor retired, and the church struggled to find an interim as the congregation was both shrinking and aging, according to Wheeler.
After much discernment with Association leadership, the congregation voted to close in November 2021, just two days after their former building sold for $2 million.
This began the years-long logistical process of legally closing a church and redistributing its funds, led by the Bethel Legacy Committee. They transferred an endowment that was restricted to certain social justice uses to First Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., and conversations around this sparked the idea to use the money for reparations.
“It was a very long discussion, with some members questioning why,” Wheeler said. “It would be a good legacy and example to other churches about how to do reparations. … We know this does not erase 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation — we know it doesn’t undo those things — but it’s a start to say we recognize that we have done damage, and while this doesn’t fix it, let’s at least give something for repair.”
‘The right thing to do’
The congregation also distributed funds to a variety of nonprofits with congregational ties and that were important to members, including programs that address food insecurity and offer LGBTQ+ support. They donated Bibles, hymnals and liturgical items to several new church plants.
It wasn’t easy, and the team worked through many debates and decisions over a year and a half, Wheeler said. The church used a consultant, attorneys and UCC resources on church legacy and closure.
“I was very thankful they had those documents and that there were people at the UCC national level like the Church Building and Loan Fund that had resources to assist us and knew people who had done this,” Wheeler said. “Initially, it felt like we were going into this blind.”
Now, with the last of Bethel’s funds distributed, the Legacy Committee has wrapped up its work. Wheeler noted the difficult emotional impact that accompanies closing a church community.
“It was good, it was hard, it was the right thing to do,” she said.
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