Brothers and sisters, today we’ve got a “special.”
Cornetta Smith, elegantly attired in purple jacket, flower brooch and beige cloche, heads for the microphone. She updates the congregation about family matters and future plans, including the news that she won’t be coming around so regularly anymore because she and her husband, who have recommitted to worshipping together, want to explore different churches. Then she croons a spiritual tune in a bigger, bolder voice than seems possible for this singer’s little frame.
Praise and applause fill the McLoughlin Heights Church of God, the long-standing spiritual base of one of Vancouver’s original African American congregations. But today, the dwindling group is struggling to redefine itself and rejuvenate its membership before it disappears completely.
“We used to have quite a large congregation, but the children grew up,” member Hosea Lewis, 86, said. “We don’t have any young people attending now. I don’t know what God’s plan is, but if this church is going to grow, we need a new direction.”
The classic neighborhood church is tucked away on the well-hidden corner of Winchell Avenue and East Ninth Street, one block northeast of Allen’s Crosley Lanes bowling alley. The congregation first gathered uphill from here in the massive wartime housing development called McLoughlin Heights. The church took that name downhill when it purchased this building from a Methodist congregation in 1960.
“Family” is the word that always comes up as members of this congregation describe what keeps them coming back to the nondenominational, Bible-based McLoughlin Heights Church of God.
“I’ve been walking here every Sunday for about 35 years, rain or shine,” Lewis said. “It’s a family-oriented church. Fellowship — you can’t buy that. You have to feel it. The grace of God is what keeps us together.”
Keeping it together is a mounting challenge for today’s tiny, graying congregation. There are just 11 official members of the group, according to spokeswoman Debra Davis, and it’s a pretty rare Sunday when random visitors push the number of worshippers past 20.
The church doesn’t even have a regular pastor or leader these days. Instead, visiting preachers and congregation members step up to lead the friendly, informal discussions, prayers, songs and laughter that start on Sunday mornings at 9:45 a.m. and spill past noon.
Everyone is called “brother” and “sister,” including the day’s designated emcee and preacher.
“We’re not into titles,” said Davis, who grew up in this church. “Everyone is equal here. ”
When The Columbian visited in late January, the church was hosting a Davis family reunion, with all five daughters of the late Andrew Davis, a longtime church officer, in attendance. Some of them traveled from as far away as Seattle and Stockton, Calif.
“My girls are all with me, all five,” widow Cora Davis said. “I lost my husband in 2017 after 59 years of marriage, but I’m thankful for my five daughters.
“I will testify: I love this church,” she declared.
“We love you,” the congregation enthusiastically responded.
Grinning emcee Willie Loving quipped, “Now we’re all going to start crying,” and everybody laughed.
“They made me fall in love with this church,” said Peter Boutte, who’s been traveling all the way from his home in Yacolt since he discovered the place three years ago. “The first time you come, they sing ‘We Welcome You.’ The people are so friendly, it’s an outpouring of love.”
Several of the church’s old-timers share a history common among African Americans in the Pacific Northwest: Their families relocated here to find work and escape the Jim Crow south.
Clevell Bogan said he was 7 when his parents moved to Vancouver from Oklahoma to work in the Kaiser shipyards during World War II.
Hosea Lewis’ mother fled Alabama and the end of her marriage, hoping for her first paying job and a new start in life.
Memories and opinions vary about the extent of racism and discrimination in Vancouver in those days, according to Jane Elder Wulff’s 2012 book, “First Families of Vancouver’s African American Community.”
A popular local myth holds that the race-blind distribution of wartime ship-worker housing set the standard for what has been an unusually race-blind city ever since. But Lewis, interviewed in the “First Families” book, remembers otherwise.
The Holland Restaurant refused to serve her and her friends, she recalls. Despite graduating from Clark College and completing a six-month business course, it was hard for her to find decent work.
When Lewis and her young family tried to move into a Fruit Valley housing development, they were met with threats of arson. The family landed in the growing black enclave around 13th Street in Harney Heights, the site of today’s Community AME Zion Church. Lewis still lives there today.
Meanwhile, Walter Griesel, pastor of Portland’s Beech Street Church of God, decided to make a move so he could preach the way he liked.
“He liked to preach long,” Debra Davis said with a chuckle.
Griesel started convening the McLoughlin Heights Church of God at the former Harney Recreation Center on 13th Street — in a boxing ring surrounded by temporary seating, Davis said.
“Back then, black people didn’t have the means for churches. We rented space from recreation centers and community centers,” she said.
When the group finally bought what was then called the East Vancouver Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1960, the sellers took their church bell with them. That turned out to be a good thing, Willie Loving said, because it made roof renovations on the 1908 building easier.
More than just a loquacious preacher, founder Griesel was very conservative, Lewis said.
“He was very strict, and the pastors that came after him had the same mentality. He didn’t believe in the kids doing sports, or providing any activities for the children,” she said.
Such strictness is what drew the patriarch of the Davis family to the McLoughlin Heights church, Debra Davis said.
Her parents took their pretty daughters to New Hope Baptist Church in Portland. That is, until Andrew Davis noticed that their arrival by car caused stampedes among the men.
“At least, that’s the story I was told,” Debra Davis laughed.
“So he moved us to the McLoughlin Heights Church of God, where all the women had to wear dresses down to their ankles and nobody was allowed to wear makeup,” she said. “My mom didn’t like the fact that the men could wear whatever they wanted but for the women it was much more restrictive.”
Things have loosened up in recent years, Davis said.
“All are welcome,” she said. “We tell everyone to come as you are and let God plant the seed.”
A few years ago, Davis stopped by the church on a weekday and discovered a plumbing break in a ground-floor bathroom.
“It busted through the floor and poured through. It was all because of a $3 washer,” she said.
The damage required new carpeting, a new electrical system and a new paint job.
“It was all paid for. I can tell you the managers are very frugal. We do very well with tithes and offerings,” Davis said.
While the building is in fine shape, much conversation on a recent Sunday was about health problems and personal losses. One child was in attendance. While there’s no specific deadline ahead, Davis said, the church’s future seems precarious.
“It’s all written into our bylaws,” she said. “Option A is if the church doesn’t grow and if the lay people who have been there since the 1960s are gone, it dissolves.”
Any money left goes to three sister Churches of God.
“Option B is if it grows and someone wants to take it over, then, amen. Praise the Lord and hallelujah,” Davis said. “It just depends.”
Depends on what? Overcoming that history of strictness and reaching out to a new generation, Lewis said.
“People have fallen away,” she said. “In terms of getting those pews filled, something is not working. We need a reality check.”
She credits Debra Davis with trying to generate a new, more contemporary, more inviting personality for today’s McLoughlin Heights Church of God.
“Personally, I don’t think we are as strict as we were,” Lewis said. “We’ve learned from the past, that will not lead us where we need to go.”
That January Sunday’s service happened to include the kind of shocking news that has people recalling, for the rest of their lives, where they were when they heard it.
Member “specials” — those personal offerings of songs, prayers and news from the congregation — were over and visiting preacher Lisa Saunders was proclaiming with passion. That’s when word started spreading about the death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash. When it reached Saunders, her jaw literally fell open.
“For all those whose mouths are dropped open, like ours are right now,” she said. “We don’t understand it all, but we know you are still God.”
Then Saunders resumed her sermon about generosity of spirit. Ignoring the homeless, and waiting for someone else to step in and help, just isn’t right for a person “who has Jesus inside,” she declared.
“We are the ones we’re waiting for,” she said. “There’s no shortage of tragedy right now. Are you the one someone is waiting for?”