Faith Anchors Linden Neighborhood Amid Ongoing Violence and Unemployment Woes
While the Northeast Side community has struggled, its roughly 100 churches have a remained a source of strength. Can these religious anchors keep the faith amid gun violence, unemployment and yet another turnaround plan?
Hebrews 11 says that faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Some say the people of Linden have a faith that surpasses understanding. They’ve witnessed the neighborhood’s glory days—the restaurants, dentists, grocery stores, block parties, churches, love and connection—and are awaiting a return to that glory.
Though Linden pride beams from its longtime denizens, violence from both its citizens and the police stains its streets. Though it’s now a ghost town compared to its vibrant peak, generations of families have stayed rooted to the predominantly Black, working-class neighborhood.
“It was a community where everyone looked just like me,” says De Lena Scales, neighborhood program specialist for the city of Columbus and a South Linden area commissioner, who grew up in Linden and is still a resident. “That sense of community that we talk about and see in a Bexley or in some of these other communities, I had growing up in Linden.”
Scales was baptized at Travelers’ Rest Baptist Church at 10 and attended vacation Bible school at the church every summer. Tutoring, basketball and other after-school activities kept her busy growing up, and her family often visited other Linden area churches for services, community sidewalk sales and dinners. “I grew up in that era where there was not an option whether you were going to church. You would get your dress and your stockings together Saturday night, and you were going to be at church sitting in those pews,” Scales says.
Within Linden’s 6 square miles, there are at least 100 churches. These religious institutions have remained remarkably resilient over the past few decades even as
homeownership has declined, crime and unemployment have increased, and coordinated efforts to improve Linden have stalled. “The church has played a role in helping shape the narrative of Linden, and the pastors are also a reflection of the community,” Scales says.
Through slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement and the continued push for equality, Black churches have served as much more than houses of worship. They are hospitals for those ailing, shelters for those escaping danger and activist training grounds for those tackling injustice. Over the years, Black pastors have often served on the front line in the face of racial conflict, political tumult and community outreach, many putting their lives on the line to call out hate and despair.
Following the example of love by action that Jesus displayed, Black churches have paid rent and provided meals, school supplies, bus passes and gas money for its members. Sometimes, people off the street sleep on the pews, and seemingly every pastor has a story of giving clothes from their backs or shoes from their feet to someone in need.
As revitalization is once again promised through the city’s One Linden Plan, some say it has been a struggle to galvanize Black churches and get Black pastors to be vocal and act when it comes to social justice issues that plague Linden and other Black communities. But Scales sympathizes with pastors who are offering spiritual guidance along with combating systemic racism.
She says these pastors are consoling families who’ve lost people to COVID-19, gun violence and natural causes. “And what about the leadership fatigue they have? Not just the physical capacity but mental capacity to handle the gravity of the Linden community,” Scales says. “It’s easier when you’re pastoring a community in Clintonville or the University District.”
A Civil Rights Textbook
The history of faith and the fight for empowerment runs deep in Linden. “Linden is a civil rights textbook, without a doubt,” says Doreen Uhas Sauer, education outreach coordinator for Columbus Landmarks.
The area’s first church, McKendree Methodist Episcopal Church, started in 1832. Like many churches, meetings and Sunday schools started inside homes. Later, a church was built and is still standing at Cleveland and Huy avenues.
In the mid-1800s, the development of Methodist churches in Clinton Township, what is now Linden and Clintonville, was closely tied to Underground Railroad sites. Abolitionists assisted Blacks seeking freedom, guiding them from Downtown through the wooded ravines of Clintonville and Linden. The goal was to reach Alum Creek, which Blacks followed to the abolitionist stronghold of Westerville (Africa Road is named for the area’s connections to the abolitionist movement). The Zenus Jackson House (also called Fort Jackson) on Westerville Road, right outside of the Linden area, was a prominent Underground Railroad site.
By 1925, six churches populated the Linden community, but over the years, ideological differences caused several congregations to split, multiplying houses of worship in the neighborhood. At the same time, the community also started to diversify. “Cleveland Avenue follows a community pattern, which is very common in the United States, of Irish, Italian, then African Americans,” Sauer says, noting that deed restrictions prevented Black people and other minorities from purchasing property and moving to the northern parts of the city. Neighborhood division between North and South Linden began in the 1960s.
Known as the “mayor of Linden,” the late activist Clarence Lumpkin moved to the neighborhood in 1961 as the southern half of the community turned into a haven for Black people. In 1960, the area south of Hudson Avenue was nearly 23 percent Black; by 1970, the Black population was almost 78 percent. The area north of Hudson Avenue remained more than 80 percent white through the 1990s, and is currently more than 60 percent white. “I didn’t move here because I was in love with the area. I didn’t have a choice,” Lumpkin said in a 1994 Columbus Dispatch article.
Black churches began laying down roots in the community to spread the gospel but also to offer tutoring, sports leagues, vacation Bible schools, community meals and support for Black families routinely disconnected from essential services. One example is the now-closed Northside Church of God, formed in 1967 at 1790 Cleveland Ave. and led by the late Rev. L’Tanya Lemon. For decades, the church served as a safe haven for runaways, drug users and those who needed food and shelter. Another Linden church, Bethel A.M.E., got its start in the auditorium of Windsor Terrace, a bygone housing project, in the 1960s. Legend has it that in 1967, a parade of 100 cars ushered the growing congregation from Windsor Terrace to its current location at 2021 Cleveland Ave.
Kirk Napper, senior pastor of The Elevation Church in Linden, says he has fond memories of being raised in Maynard Avenue Baptist Church, where his father was a deacon and his mother was a deaconess. “Both of my parents worked full time, and one of the members of Maynard Avenue Baptist Church was my babysitter. I ended up going to Hudson Elementary because that’s where she lived. So, my heart has always been in the Linden area,” Napper says.
While Linden’s Black population grew through the civil rights movement and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the community also suffered as highway construction isolated Black communities across Columbus. A growing Black population and the building of Windsor Terrace in South Linden and other federal housing projects contributed to white flight from Columbus inner-city neighborhoods. By the 1980s, South Linden community leaders began advocating for resources to rebuild and strengthen businesses, housing and jobs for the community, which is now nearly 90 percent Black.
Turnaround efforts have continued over the years, with the latest occurring after the 2015 election of Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther, who’s made revitalizing Linden one of the cornerstones of his administration. In 2018, the city released its One Linden Plan, outlining 10 big ideas to stimulate housing, economic development, safety, employment and overall community wellness. Scales says that many of Linden’s churches helped develop the plan, but she’d like to see a more coordinated engagement with the city. “I think it’s important for the pastor to know the resources that are available for their community and serve as trusted messengers between city officials and their members,” Scales says.
New Salem Baptist Church leaders were a part of the advisory committee of the One Linden Plan, says Adam Troy, executive director of Community of Caring Development Foundation, the nonprofit economic development arm of New Salem. Troy says over the past 20 years, the foundation has provided affordable housing to more than 1,000 families through public and private partnerships.
“The One Linden Plan—simply, quite frankly—is the work that the Black church had been doing but not necessarily getting credit for,” Troy says. “We have phenomenal talent and pretty good resources within Linden. We’ve tried to make sure that we either get behind those resources or come alongside those resources to make sure that they can maximize their full potential.”
A Black Church in North Linden
A common phrase at Black churches is “turn to your neighbor.” The idea is for parishioners to repeat a friendly phrase to build camaraderie. In the 1980s, the Rev. Keith Troy, the pastor of New Salem Baptist Church and Adam Troy’s brother, used that sentiment to build trust and understanding in the Linden community. “Our position was that we wanted to be the best neighbor we could be and somehow help transform that community into what we thought God would want it to be,” Rev. Troy says.
With warmth and care, Rev. Troy connects with 5,000 members in Columbus and around the globe seeking refuge under God’s word. After 37 years in North Linden, New Salem is one of the largest, most prominent churches in the city. Rev. Troy is, along with his brothers, seated at Columbus tables where political and business decisions are made.
“I think it’s important to appreciate the background because oftentimes people will look at churches like New Salem through the lens of simply being, not what it took to become,” says Adam Troy.
The Troy brothers grew up in Warren, Ohio, where their father, the Rev. Leon Troy, was a pastor until relocating to Columbus to lead the historic Second Baptist Church on the Near East Side. (Leon Troy also served as a community affairs special assistant for Columbus Mayor Buck Rhinehart.) After graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Keith Troy earned a master’s degree from Colgate Crozer Seminary in Rochester, New York, and a doctorate from the United Theological Seminary in Dayton. At 33, he was named the leader of New Salem Baptist Church, and in 1983, he decided to move his growing, 400-member congregation from 47 N. Champion Ave. in the Near East Side to its current North Linden location.
Troy says he had to navigate community politics, learning the North and South Linden divide and bringing his Black church to a neighborhood that was predominantly white at the time. “I’m not from Columbus, so I did not understand there was some pushback because my people were saying, ‘Why are we going way up north?’ And having lived in Atlanta and New York, I was confused by ‘way up’ because I didn’t think it was that far,” Troy says. “But they were not talking about geography. They were talking about mindset, the difference in how they operate up north versus how we operate in the Near East Side.”
Troy acknowledges that the majority of the church’s congregation lives outside of Linden, but he says they are committed to seeing the neighborhood thrive. “Our whole income is based upon one thing—trust,” Troy says. “We don’t buy and sell goods. People give us resources because they trust us to meet those needs. And the day they stop is the day we’re no longer relevant.”
A Lost Generation
Whether Baptist, Pentecostal, African Methodist Episcopal or nondenominational, each of the churches that line the Linden streets has a different theology and philosophy that defines its place in a community with so many needs. Many say that the number of churches doesn’t necessarily represent an overflowing community of faith—some smaller churches may have split from a larger church and have 10 members. After longstanding pastors passed away, many of Linden’s oldest Black churches dwindled in attendance or closed.
Younger generations are also less likely to lean on churches like their grandparents did. Nearly half of Black people under the age of 40 say they never or rarely attend church, according to a Pew Research Center report released in February 2021. The number of Black people who grew up in church also has declined over the generations. Nearly 90 percent of Black grandparents, who are now over the age of 75, grew up in a Black church. Today, only 64 percent of young adults and children say they grew up in a Black church.
As church members age and younger generations have dropped off in church membership, many Black churches have moved from being spirit-focused to business-focused, Scales says. “They are figuring out what to do to keep the doors open,” Scales says.
Staying relevant may also require a more aggressive stance against racism, as well as less formal outreach methods. Linden native Sherwin Armistead, pastor of True Love Ministries, says his North Linden congregation adheres to Black liberation theology, a philosophy rooted in the civil rights movement that views the world through the lens of racial oppression. Armistead and the church deacons walk the streets of Linden in sweatsuits and Timberland boots. “I even stopped some of the police officers and told them, ‘I’m the pastor of that church on Minnesota Avenue. We’re not gang members,’” Armistead says. “We walk the streets with no Bible in our hands, because the word is hidden in our hearts.”
In the last five years, Franklin County has had one of the highest rates in the country of fatal shootings by police, and Black men are killed the most, according to the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health. Armistead says his goal is to empower Black people with self-love and spirituality but also with tools to be self-sufficient in a city riddled with systemic hurdles.
“I was once a young Black male. I have a Black son, and I know we are endangered species,” Armistead says. “My job is to protect them at all costs, educate them. So, they’ll know what to do when they get into situations where they do not know what to do.”
A Response to the Times
Paisha Thomas attended several churches in Linden when she relocated from Piqua to Columbus in 2000. Coming from a Pentecostal background, she found it hard to maintain her interest in upholding church protocols in an evolving world. “I went to Grace Apostolic Church when I first got here, and they wouldn’t let women wear pants, and it was the year 2000,” says Thomas, who works with Say It Loud Columbus, an interfaith social justice organization that works in tandem with Faith in Public Life Ohio.
Thomas says that Black church leaders should be on the front lines of protests when Black men and boys continue to be victims of gun violence. Though many Black pastors are vocal when gun violence occurs, she says a more coordinated effort to yield that influence politically could change Columbus. “When it comes to justice, the powers that be respond to religious people. If you know that’s the point of power, then it’s wise to harness it for justice,” Thomas says.
Coming up in churches where singing, praising and shouting would override answering today’s tough questions on society caused a lot of young Black people to disconnect from the church, says the Rev. Vince Ford, senior pastor of the Church of Christ at Genessee Avenue, who moved to Columbus from Phoenix in 2019. “The emotionalism and the style in the Black church overshadowed content for a while,” Ford says. “A young Black man who’s proud to be Black but is still struggling with identity is going to struggle in the church because he can’t get answers to the questions he has.”
When he arrived in Columbus, Ford says he joined community outreach efforts, including the Concerned Clergy of Linden. Ford taught his congregation the interconnections between faith and social justice for at least three months as civil unrest roused in Columbus during 2020. He says the church has a social justice ministry and a pastor who works directly on civil rights issues affecting the Linden community.
“We can’t be silent. As preachers, we have to spend time teaching our congregations what justice and righteousness is,” Ford says. “And also spend time explaining to other folks who don’t hold the Black community in the highest regard that private morality isn’t an indication of righteousness. We were expected to be advocates for one another: ‘love thy neighbor as thyself,’ which means that I’m going to advocate for you because I love me.”
The Rev. Taelor Gray, pastor of Linden Life Ministries, preaches to a congregation that is mixed with Black and white members. He says that the church is constantly navigating cultural, social and political differences through the lens of God’s word, but he stresses to the congregation that its Linden location makes outreach a priority.
“This is not just a church that exists to be one size fits all. We’re in Linden,” says Gray, who made the tough choice to open the church back up in June 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic to address the immediate needs of the community and his congregation. “There were significant mental health issues that people go through when they have to be confined to their homes. It has to do with the decisions that were made at the beginning of the pandemic where the city took away the rims on the basketball court and the courts in Linden. These young folks have nowhere else to direct their energy, except towards one another.”
Gray is also a hip-hop artist who uses music and social media to bring awareness to social justice issues. Since Casey Goodson was killed by a police officer in the neighborhood just north of Linden in December 2020, Gray hasn’t cut his hair. When people ask him about his appearance, it gives him a chance to discuss justice issues.
The obstacles are huge in Linden. And faith without the work won’t save the neighborhood. Yet even amid violence and unemployment, Linden pride remains—and its churches are a main source of this hope. “In a lot of cities when the churches start to move, then we got problems,” Ford says. “It’s imperative that we galvanize the influence that we have right now and don’t lose faith.”
This story was published in the May 2021 edition of Columbus Monthly, a special issue dedicated to exploring the experiences of Black people in Central Ohio. The issue is available on newsstands through May.