Woodlawn Christian Church, which once had 500 active members, is down to about 15 — and on Sept. 9, they will vote on a proposal to do what many other mainline Protestant churches in older San Antonio neighborhoods have done. Shut the doors, sell the property and send the cash to charitable causes, their denomination or some combination of the two.
But in this case, the decision has sparked accusations of racism and a battle for control. A church board member claims those who want to close the 76-year-old church simply are trying to avoid handing the reigns to a capable Hispanic congregation already renting space there.
“It’s just blatant racism,” said Larry Polinard, the board’s property chairman who, like the rest of the dwindling congregation, is Anglo.
“I think it stinks. We have a group of eight to 10 people who just don’t want ‘those people’ in their church. They’re going to take the brick and mortar with them to their grave.” Just who qualifies as a voting member is in dispute.
After the vote was scheduled, dozens from the Hispanic congregation and some Anglos from the neighborhood applied for membership this month but the board declared Aug. 5 the deadline for joining. Pastor Bill Howden denies racism is at work and laments the elderly remnant must endure such charges after years of service.
“It’s an effort to distract from the real issues being debated, which is that the integrity of the rule of the congregation not be taken over by outsiders in a power play,” he said.
At stake are the church and nearly an acre at 1744 W. Gramercy Place appraised at almost $900,000, plus an estimated $180,000 bank account.
Woodlawn Christian thrived when the Jefferson area on the near Northwest Side was a newer, middle-class and mostly Anglo community. Today, lower-income Hispanic households predominate.
A recent sidewalk protest by the League of United Latin American Citizens decried the possible end of a food and clothing pantry, recovery programs and free community breakfasts, among other outreach at the church. “It’s a house of praise, and they need to open it up to any and everyone,” said Henry Rodriguez, state civil rights chairman for LULAC. “It belongs to the community.”
The church is two blocks from the historic Woodlawn Theatre, a centerpiece in an effort to revitalize the Deco District along Fredericksburg Road. It currently serves as an area office for 75 Disciples of Christ congregations across South-Central Texas.
Churches in the denomination are led by their congregations. Members vote on property, clergy and for a governing board. The proposed closure requires a two-thirds majority.
Polinard said the deadline to prevent new members from joining — and voting — violates the church’s own rules requiring a congregational vote for such a policy change.
Howden questioned the timing of the new membership applications, arguing the deadline preserves the membership in place when the proposed closure was announced. If the deadline stands, the measure is expected to pass.
That would disrupt nearly two years of ministry to the neighborhood by Centro Cristiano Tiempo de Restauracion, said its pastor, Frank Avila. His congregation, about 60 people, long had wanted to merge with Woodlawn Christian and the two groups held fellowship dinners together, though the Anglo members resisted, he said.
“We’re not here to try to take advantage of them,” Avila said. “Why not let it continue to grow here in this community for years to come? The building is not something you are going to take with you.”
The older members harbor no hostility and “did not ever anticipate that this would be such a difficult decision” — but they have the right to decide the fate of their church, said the Rev. Dani Loving Cartwright, the denomination’s regional minister and president, based in Fort Worth.
“They did not bring any ill will to the community,” she said. “They are just older people who are at the end of their ministry energy, and I think they are trying to do the right thing.” — Reported by Abe Levy