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West End church uses gentrification to fuel a big move to Mount Healthy

'Where are the people? They're no longer there'
Revelation Missionary Baptist Church in Mount Healthy
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-16 17:26:37-04

MOUNT HEALTHY, Ohio — Like many others in and outside of Revelation Missionary Baptist Church, Trustee Charlie Brown, a lifelong member, was attached to the congregation’s old building at 1556 John Street overlooking Liberty Street in the West End.

It had sentimental value, beautiful architecture and historical significance. After all, this was the same church once pastored by Civil Rights Leader Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. It was the place of worship for around 500 Black residents at the height of its activity in the '60s and '70s. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. was known to visit the congregation on occasion.

But when Brown took stock of the gentrification that was happening around the church⁠—especially the changes to be expected by FC Cincinnati stadium⁠—he changed his mind.

“Oh my God. If we were still (there), it would be horrible,” Brown said. “The stadium down there looks like a big spaceship coming out at you. And when you pull in there you think ET is coming to get you.”

The latest iteration of gentrification in the West End appeared to be the final straw that pushed them to move the congregation elsewhere. Revelation’s leadership explained they were also inclined to leave their landmark location because their building, originally a synagogue built in 1865, had long been falling apart.

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Revelation Missionary Baptist Church owned its old location on John Street since 1927. FC Cincinnati later bought the plot in 2019.

“We had no mortgage note," Brown said. "But it was a lot of work to be done. The roof was falling in. It was leaking inside. We had buckets catching water…and we didn't have enough to get all that stuff repaired."

It is uncertain who made the first move on the sale, but Revelation closed on a deal with FC Cincinnati in May 2019. Brown said the congregation was satisfied with the deal, and that FC Cincinnati was fair and accommodating in the process.

“They didn't try to take anything from us," Brown said. "As a matter of fact, we wasn't gonna allow them to do that. We made it known to them, that Revelation wants to be made whole. And they saw to it.”

Revelation’s board declined to say how much they received from FC Cincinnati for their property at John Street. Ultimately, the church's leaders used funds they received from their deal with FC Cincinnati to purchase their current location at 7717 Harrison Ave. The board said the church does not have a mortgage note at this address.

Meanwhile, that old building at 1556 John Street no longer stands -- it was demolished in 2020.

FC Cincinnati has not responded to questions about their current plans for the lot now occupied by various parked cars. A number of community members WCPO spoke to who were invested in the building’s preservation said they regret that gentrification in the West End has led to events like Revelation’s old building being knocked down. Revelation is widely respected for its legacy as a lighthouse for African Americans throughout Cincinnati, and it frustrates them that the building, a physical manifestation of that legacy that spoke to the West End’s character, was driven out amid FCC’s redevelopment efforts.

"Everyone that I spoke with was very disappointed and very disheartened that that building was going to be torn down," said Tamera Casey of Fairfield. Casey, 34, was active in the church as a child. Even though she has moved on to another congregation, she looks back fondly on her time at Revelation and is still close to other church members to this day.

"We all felt like it was a staple in the community," Casey said. "It had so much history, so many memories for all of us."

Anita Dell-Toney, 49, of Mount Healthy, said she still gets a little emotional when she drives past Liberty and John streets because the church she grew up in is now a parking lot.

"It really kind of makes me feel like, wow, where are the people?...They're no longer there," Dell-Toney said. "The community is different and it just looks like they are just tearing down and building up, and it's being built, but not for people of color."

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Revelation Church was seen as a safe haven for African Americans in Cincinnati and beyond.

But Revelation’s own leadership sees it very differently.

Like Brown, Antoinette Sutton is a lifelong member of Revelation. The 77-year-old woman grew up in the West End and later raised her own family in Mount Healthy. She said she has made peace with the fact that their old place of worship is no longer there.

“I have the memories in my heart," Sutton said. "I have the memories in my mind, and I have pictures and programs to show the memories of how it used to be.”

She and Brown suggest that moving out of the West End with the funds they received from the old building empowered the church to take control of its destiny.

“What I see that's there today, it just reminds me that things that used to be are no longer," Sutton said. "Progress will remove some things. You can't stay in the past and expect to move forward in the future.”

With their eyes gazing forward, the church's leadership is preoccupied with finishing the last of the renovations on their new location. The board made extensive renovations to the sanctuary, including installing their old stained-glass windows from John Street that were customized to fit the new space. They are also looking to finish installing air conditioning, put blacktop on their parking lot and put more furniture in their downstairs fellowship hall.

More importantly, Revelation is concerned with reviving, growing and diversifying their congregation. Leaders look forward to celebrating the church's centennial later this year. However, the thriving membership Revelation had in past decades has since dwindled to about 50 people. Sutton said that this is a result of members getting older and dying out. She also points to the extensive, perpetual displacement that wiped out their base: Black residents in the West End.

The pandemic has led to membership fizzling out even further. Revelation had not consistently congregated in person since last year, when they were still in their John Street location before COVID-19 lockdowns.

Instead, the church resorted to hosting virtual services through Zoom and Facebook Live, as many other religious institutions have done throughout the pandemic. Aside from a number of services that were held last fall, the congregation only resumed in-person worship in its new sanctuary last month, on Palm Sunday. Their team has been up against a number of complications and many adjustments brought on by COVID-19 and relocation. Still, Revelation’s new pastor, Kendall Washington, is steadfast in his mission to use the gospel to bring people together.

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The stained glass windows from the old Revelation Church building in the West End were preserved and installed into the congregation's new sanctuary in Mount Healthy.

“I think we have to deal with the new moment," Washington said. "Getting them acclimated to the pandemic, the way it's made worship, the way it’s transitioned worship. The vision is to reclaim the members that have strayed, and then seek to bring new members into the church.”

Finding their new home has motivated Revelation leadership to reach younger members. They also hope to entice new attendees of other racial and ethnic groups that are prominent in Mount Healthy. Washington wants anyone who is curious about joining Revelation to know that the doors to their church are wide open.

“It's a great church. Revelation is rich in history, and we're rich in our future. And I invite anybody to come,” Washington said. “If you come and you don't like it, you've only wasted an hour and a half of your time on a Sunday.”

Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.

If there are stories about gentrification in the greater Cincinnati area that you think we should cover, let us know. Send us your tips at moveupcincinnati@wcpo.com.

WCPO 9's ongoing series, Move Up Cincinnati, tracks regional growth and how our community is working to uplift those left behind. To contact the Move Up Cincinnati team, email us at moveupcincinnati@wcpo.com.