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651: If You Build It, Will They Come?

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

This reporter named Eric Mennel told me this thing a little while back that I found totally fascinating, knew nothing about at all. Eric was raised as an evangelical in Florida and works these days at Gimlet Media. And he's been reporting on this one part of the Christian world for a while.

Eric Mennel

There's this whole Christian version of Silicon Valley, only instead of, like, creating apps and tech products, what the Christian world is trying to do is use the tools of Silicon Valley to create churches. They'll call them church startups or church plants.

Ira Glass

And so what are some of the tools that they use that are the same?

Eric Mennel

It kind of runs the gamut, right? If you can find it in Silicon Valley, it probably exists somewhere in the church planting world. So for example, there are boot camps, where, for maybe three or five days of your time, you can go and learn everything that you need to learn in order to start a new church.

Ira Glass

Mhm.

Eric Mennel

They have these big incubators, right? Like, there's one in New York City, where, over the course of two years, you'll come to get this product off the ground-- this product, of course, being your church. And the same way that tech companies are obsessed with their origin stories-- one thing you hear a lot is how they've gotten their start in garages-- church plants have their own origin stories.

Man 1

Over two decades ago, my wife, Amy, and I started Life Church in what was then a little two-car garage.

Eric Mennel

That's from a video off one of these churches' websites. They also have conferences.

Man 2

We're going to go ahead and get started. Glad you're here. We'll give you one minute. Kind of our background--

Eric Mennel

So this is a session at the biggest church planting conference in the country. It happens every year in Orlando. It's called Exponential. It's sort of the TechCrunch Disrupt of church planting.

Man 2

So we ease-- again, our goal, our target, is unchurched people, high-conversion growth rate. So we're targeting them. So we're easing them in to the process of church. Now, there's two gathering models, if you will.

Ira Glass

So this sounds so jargony-- like, high-conversion growth rate means they're trying to convert non-church people into church people?

Eric Mennel

Yeah. It's really interesting. You actually kind of see this, like, blending of techy jargon with Christian jargon in this world. Like, in this particular seminar, they talk about "kingdom return on investment." Or "evangelistic networking" is one I've read, or "corporate renewal dynamics."

"Launch" is a big word that they use in both worlds. They talk about "launch Sundays" and "launch budgets" in church planting. And the framing of what they're doing is in business terms, right?

Tim Keller

This is a story about--

Eric Mennel

This is from a website from one of the gurus of this movement. His name is Tim Keller. I've actually heard one pastor call him the Yoda of church planting.

Ira Glass

Uh-huh.

Eric Mennel

He founded this incredibly successful church in New York City called Redeemer Presbyterian church. And it's also formed its own church planting organization called Redeemer City to City. So this is a video about planting more churches in New York City, and it's described entirely through business terms.

Tim Keller

In 1989, New York was the least religious city in America. Less than 1% of center-city New Yorkers attended a gospel teaching church. Today, that number is 5%.

Eric Mennel

These are their own numbers, by the way. And in the video, a dot is moving up the graph.

Tim Keller

We are launching a 10-year vision to see the body of Christ in New York rise from 5% to 15%. That means tripling by 2026. And here's the thing. We think that just might represent a tipping point-- a tipping point of gospel saturation that does more than just--

Ira Glass

OK, so in the tech world, the investors are these VC firms, Venture Capital firms. What's the equivalent in this world?

Eric Mennel

So a lot of the startup capital comes from the biggest denominations. The Southern Baptists-- they spend tens of millions of dollars a year on church planting. But a lot of church plants actually get their funding directly from megachurches-- established churches that have thousands of members. They view it as their mission to launch new, successful churches.

Ira Glass

And how long has this been happening?

Eric Mennel

Church planting, in its modern form, started about 20 or 30 years ago. And they came about to solve what is basically a business problem. Since the 1970s, the number of people who've said they are going to church at least once a week has dropped 40%, according to the best data on this. That's from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. And it's been especially bad among young people in their late teens and 20s. The percentage of 20-somethings who claim no religious affiliation has doubled since 1996.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Eric Mennel

Yeah, from 20% to almost 40%. And these churches have recognized that without young people, they simply cannot survive. So they wanted to get nonbelievers coming to church.

And to do that, what they've tried to do is disrupt the way evangelical church is usually done. So they'll meet in weird, lean, hipper spaces. They'll have better music.

Ira Glass

And has that worked?

Eric Mennel

Yeah, it's worked. When you look at church attendance, one of the only groups that aren't seeing drastically falling numbers are evangelicals-- the group that has focused most seriously on church planting.

Ira Glass

And Eric, you are here today to tell this story. You have spent months following somebody who's trying to attract funders and start one of these church plant startup churches.

Eric Mennel

Yes, yes. His name is Watson Jones III. Watson is 34. He's bald. He has a clean beard and thick-rimmed glasses. He grew up going to a traditional Baptist Church on the south side of Chicago. And he knew that he wanted to start a church, even since he was a teenager.

So he did all the things you're supposed to do to become a pastor. He went to seminary. He got a master's in divinity. And from the beginning, he had a real gift for preaching. This is from a sermon he gave while he was still in training.

Watson Jones

Remember growing up on the south side of Chicago, and my daddy was teaching me how to ride a bike. Your parents ever walked alongside of you while you riding that bike? And I remember, we were going down the street, and I saw some girls on the porch.

Oh, yeah. You know, when you see them girls on the porch, you got to get it together. Can't have your parent holding your hand now. You got to straighten up and fly right.

I said, Daddy, get your hands off the handlebars, man. I got this.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHING]

And it didn't take me too long to get to a point where I realized, I never learned how to balance myself without my daddy's help. Here it is-- some of us are busy slapping Jesus' hands off the handlebars of our life. There are many of us--

Eric Mennel

And Watson really knew nothing about the church planting world until a friend clued him into some of this, told him about a boot camp that Watson then attended. But Watson didn't understand it was this entire movement-- not until he went to a conference. This was in 2013.

He went to that big conference in Orlando, Exponential. It was eye opening. It was really exciting to him.

Watson Jones

Some of what I was seeing was so new to me. It was so different. They were wearing skinny jeans and they looked real cool. And I felt like, in my background, we still wearing suits.

And I felt like people in those conferences were talking about things that helped relate with people who were not used to going to church. I felt like they were on the cutting edge. I believed that the only people who were effective were church planters. And the rest of these churches, that they need to close, or they need to adapt to all of that.

Eric Mennel

He did notice something else when he was there at the conference, something that was also very similar to Silicon Valley.

Watson Jones

There were at least 4,000 in the room. And I saw a lot of white people. You know, I'd be the only black in the room, because it wasn't really a black thing more than it was a white evangelical thing.

Eric Mennel

That's true in general for this movement. In the United States, it's mostly white evangelicals doing this. And they're mostly planting churches in the suburbs, or affluent or gentrifying areas in cities.

So Watson wanted to do things the way these white church planters were doing them. But he wanted to fill the church with people like him-- people of color who lived in the inner city. And that difference was, to use tech world language, his competitive advantage. That was the thing that set him apart from thousands of other evangelicals looking for investors.

Watson Jones

I saw myself practically dancing between two lines-- between the white church and the black church. I danced in the black church because it was my identity, but danced in the evangelical world because that's where a lot of financial partners were.

Ira Glass

And so, as you're about to hear, Watson jumps into it, like a proper pastoral entrepreneur, to build his church. And some of what that involves is not so different from starting any business, of course. And some of it is very particular to bringing people to God.

It's a funny mix where you are taking charge of things, right? You're marching to this future like you can make a difference, while all along, there's this weird powerlessness to it. Like, at some point, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, how hard you think about it, people either show up or they don't show up. Either they love your thing or they don't love your thing.

It's like that saying from Field of Dreams-- if you build it, they will come. The real-life version of that usually has a question mark at the end of it. If you build it, will they come?

Today on our show, we have stories about people building stuff and wondering exactly that. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And we're just going to jump right in with Act One.

Act One: Come All Ye Faithless

Eric Mennel

Part of what's impressive about the church planting world is how thoroughly it tries to prepare its pastors for what's ahead. When he was first getting started, Watson enrolled in this sort of boot camp called Fellowship Associates. They flew him to Arkansas every two weeks for a few days to train.

Watson Jones

They teach you everything, from fundraising, to developing a core team, to writing a philosophy of ministry, which is basically a business prospectus, to crafting a budget, to funding the budget, to managing donors, to gathering people around a vision and an idea.

Eric Mennel

Fellowship Associates set Watson up with a year-and-a-half-long residency at a church plant like the one he wanted to create in a poor neighborhood in North Philadelphia, where Watson learned the nuts and bolts of a daily church operation. One of the main things to accomplish during the residency was working out a business plan. And I mean that literally-- a business plan, a clear idea for his church that he could pitch to raise money, with a clear, simple mission.

Watson Jones

We want to create a church that will seek to reach people who don't know Jesus Christ or who are not a part of a church.

Eric Mennel

Part one of the pitch-- location. He'd stick with his vision to serve the kind of neighborhood church planters don't usually go into. For decades, when church painters went into urban neighborhoods, they usually picked gentrifying ones or wealthier ones. Watson chose an area on Philly's northwest side that was not gentrifying. It was mostly black, mostly low income.

Watson Jones

I am a product of the South Side of Chicago. My whole life has been living and navigating as a black Chicagoan on the South Side. That was core to me. So I really wanted to target the thoroughly urban Philadelphian, to engage people who Jesus would engage. Jesus was willing to be associated with prostitutes and with tax collectors.

I had the idea of whosoever, we'll let them come. Whoever wants to be a part of our church can be a part of our church. Then I also wanted to be able to reach people that were in my age group initially-- at the time, I was 28, 29, 30-- and then also trying to reach older people-- my mother's generation, which is a little more stable, so--

Eric Mennel

So that was part one of the pitch-- location. Part two of the pitch-- the building, or lack thereof. They wouldn't have a building. This is a strategy that had been really successful for planting churches elsewhere, in well-off or gentrifying neighborhoods. They don't meet in an actual church.

The idea is that the church buildings carry a lot of cultural baggage. They can be stodgy and uncomfortable. So to get away from all that, and as a sort of hack to save money early on, church plants will scrap the building. In most places, this is church planting 101.

Watson Jones

I said, man, churches spend too much time focusing on a building. And they put so much money into a building. So early, early, early on, I wasn't thinking anything about owning a building.

Eric Mennel

He figured they could meet in a coffee shop, or a bookstore, or something, even his living room. And finally, part three of the pitch-- a business partner.

AJ Smith

No, OK, I'm going to give you a picture of myself at this point, OK? You ready?

Eric Mennel

This is AJ Smith.

AJ Smith

I'm this white kid with dreadlocks all the way down my back, with a scraggly beard, wearing moccasins with holes in them, pants that have been patched up a million times, flannels ripped up.

Watson Jones

Now, AJ, a good day for him is to go sit in the mountains and just sit there by himself. That's a good day for him. That's kind of how he dressed.

Eric Mennel

Crunchy dude.

Watson Jones

Yeah, no, yeah. But he was a nice guy.

Eric Mennel

AJ actually brought a lot more than just worn-out moccasins to the table. He was training at a church nearby to plant a church in the inner city. He's 31 now, and he had grown up in a church plant.

He'd gone to seminary. He'd run a homeless ministry. Once you got past the dreadlocks, AJ seemed like a great number-two guy. And he was fired up to help make Watson's vision a reality.

AJ Smith

I really believe strongly in submitting to African-American leadership, if you're in a largely minority setting-- or minority leadership, even. So I'm this white guy. So I say, yeah, man. I love the idea of, like-- I want to be in the inner city. I want to plant churches. Let me spend some time under you and just helping you do your thing.

Talked with my wife. We were like, yeah. I like it. Let's do it.

Watson Jones

We prayed about it. And we felt like it was what the lord wanted.

AJ Smith

It was going to be called Restoration Church.

Eric Mennel

Watson didn't have the direct connections to megachurches who might help fund Restoration. But he'd heard about some people who did-- a church planting network called Orchard Group. Orchard is this middleman organization. They help connect church plants to established churches that have a lot of money.

Orchard Group is very selective. Of the thousands of people planting churches every year, about 100 apply with them, and the network only supports three or four. Watson called the president of the network directly. And before even putting in a formal application, they were excited about his vision.

So in 2013, Restoration Church became one of the few churches they supported. They helped line up a good chunk of startup capital-- in total, about $100,000 per year for three years. Most of that was just going to cover his salary and half of AJ's. The reason for the three-year funding terms is that surveys of new churches show, if a church plant isn't sustainable after three years, it will likely never be sustainable. And nobody wants to sink their money into a failing church.

And so, with their seed funding in place, the countdown started. It was April 2014, and Watson and AJ had three years to get this church off the ground, to attract enough people to become self-sustaining.

Initially, they just wanted people to come to a once-a-week Bible study at Watson's home. So the first thing they did was try to drum up interest the old-fashioned way-- through outreach on the streets in the neighborhood.

Watson Jones

Early on, man, me and AJ were out on corners, passing out coffee, free coffee, on bus stops.

AJ Smith

We would make signs. We'd go to the community days. We'd go to volunteer at elementary schools.

Watson Jones

We passed out water. We would have our team standing on crowded corners in the hot summer.

Leah Smith

We were handing out Blow Pops to people.

Eric Mennel

This is Leah Smith, AJ's wife.

Leah Smith

And I think we put a little message on them-- let the love of God blow you away-- so corny. So corny. But we were trying to get people. It kind of felt like anything could happen at any moment.

Watson Jones

So as we meet with people, we're going to ask, hey, man, who are three to four people you think would be interested in this? And we met a ton of people, a lot of people. We prayed for and prayed with a lot of people.

Eric Mennel

Over the course of just a few months, they had conversations with hundreds of people. And occasionally, some of them would take down Watson's address and show up to the Bible study.

Leah Smith

Any time a new person would come, it was like, ah, this is exciting! This is great!

Watson Jones

We had interest from all kinds of people-- people who didn't go to church, people who did go to church were very interested in us, because we looked different. And they liked us. They liked our spirit.

AJ Smith

For the most part, people were very receptive, and even, I'd say, very respectful of the ministry and what we were trying to do, and were very appreciative. But it didn't translate. We largely were not successful at getting people to come to our outreaches. It was a major disappointment.

Watson Jones

Man, I probably gained 20 pounds that year alone. It was extremely stressful.

Eric Mennel

It felt like the outreaches were missing the mark. The goal had always been to reach people who weren't served by other churches, who weren't going to church. But by the end of six months, it was clear-- the people showing up, for the most part, were already church people coming from other churches. And they realized, maybe one of their basic premises was wrong. Something that other church plants always did, something that worked in the suburbs, was not working here.

Watson Jones

I think, in retrospect, what probably hurt us is, the thing to bring them to was a Bible study in my house. The first thing they'd ask me is, where is your church? Oh, well, we meet in my house.

And one lady told me-- she said, you guys are a cult. You call me when you get a church. Especially, I think, among black people, the more out of the box or avant garde you are, the less likely you are to be trusted.

Theologically, we say all day long, the church is the people of God. The people in your city, in your neighborhood, does not understand church apart from a building, a preacher, a choir or a praise team, and something that looks like a church service, period.

AJ Smith

That was really a gut check to us, because that was our-- that was plan A. And we weren't really sure what plan B was.

Eric Mennel

Plan A was the outreaches?

AJ Smith

Yeah. I mean, we were going to be the people who were out there on the streets, pastors who were very much present with the people. And that's how we'll grow the church. That didn't work.

Eric Mennel

Hm. Why not?

Aj Smith

I think people have been to church. I think people have done church. And I think people don't have great experiences with church. And because of that, I think the last thing people want to do is waste a day, in their mind, of the weekend coming to church.

Eric Mennel

Yeah.

AJ Smith

I love what you all are doing, but you know-- OK, maybe I'll come by sometime. They ain't coming to church. They've been to church. Their uncle started a church 20 years ago, and they had to go sit through three hours on a Sunday morning, couldn't wait to get out of there. They couldn't wait till they were 18, and they didn't have to go to church anymore.

Eric Mennel

This is perhaps where planting a church is most different from starting a company. It is very hard to get someone to try a new app. But what Watson was attempting seems even harder-- to get someone to try something they've already tried and rejected, and then to readjust their whole way of understanding the universe and their feelings about God, and to start going to church, and to help fund that church.

It's exactly the problem the church planting movement is supposed to solve, and does solve in lots of new churches. But the way most church planters usually solve this problem is to make church feel more relevant, meet in weirder spaces, like warehouses or coffee shops. There are church plants in breweries.

The music in a typical church plant does not sound like the music in a traditional church. There are electric guitars with lots of effects on them. If they sing hymns, they're done in a style more like Mumford and Sons than Mozart.

[MUSIC - "I WILL WAIT" BY MUMFORD AND SONS]

Marcus Mumford

(SINGING) And I will--

Eric Mennel

This is a church plant worship service where they're literally just playing Mumford and Sons. And I got to say, the lyrics, "I will wait for you," land very differently when you're thinking about the rapture.

Marcus Mumford

(SINGING) I will wait. I will wait for you. I will wait. I will wait--

Eric Mennel

These churches are intentionally made to feel like going to a concert, not like going to church. There are professional lighting systems, and even smoke machines in some cases. But the thing about relevancy is that it's relative. A lot of that stuff-- the lights, the music-- it was designed by white people for white people.

What Watson and AJ were finding was that, in an African-American context in northwest Philly, those things don't necessarily feel relevant. So nine months in, Watson and AJ decided to scrap a key part of their business plan, one of the things that was going to make their church so different. And that's the part about having no building. They decided to reboot and to hold regular weekly services in a building, like the neighborhood seemed to want.

They did two preview services-- preview services are a kind of beta test for the church-- in a banquet hall. They wanted to pick a space that didn't carry any of the negative connotations and baggage of a traditional church. But it was maybe a bit of an overcorrection.

Watson Jones

We went to this place called Temptations. And we went to Temptations--

Eric Mennel

Wait, it's called Temptations?

Watson Jones

Yeah, yeah, we-- yeah, we made all kind of jokes about that. Yeah, Temptations. The first time we went there, they just had trash everywhere-- hair weaves, and bras, and open bottles, and--

Eric Mennel

Wait, there were literally, like, bras?

Watson Jones

Yeah, yeah. We saw two bras, just on the floor, while trying to set our own stuff up.

Eric Mennel

So next, they tried an elementary school cafeteria. That's where they moved out of beta and held their first-ever regular Sunday service. In the church planting world, it's called launch Sunday. And it's a huge deal for a church plant-- a sort flag-on-the-moon moment saying, we are here to stay.

It was March 2015, 11 months after they started, just about two years left on the countdown clock. They put out the word on Facebook, on flyers. They told family and friends. And then they prayed.

Eric Mennel

Were you nervous before?

Watson Jones

Very, yeah. Very nervous, yes.

Eric Mennel

What was going through your mind?

Watson Jones

What if no one comes? Why would they come? There was a guy I knew who had launched a church. And every week, it decreased until, like, a month later, it didn't exist anymore.

So in my mind, I'm like, well, what if that's me? What do I tell these donors who gave a lot of money to this? And what will I tell my wife? What will I tell my family? All of that.

Amen. You may be seated in the presence of the lord.

Eric Mennel

Watson woke up on the morning of March 22, 2015. He put on his brown corduroy pants, and a blue patterned shirt, and a white cardigan. And at 11:00 AM, he stepped up to the podium in front of more than 100 cafeteria chairs. And he started to pray.

Watson Jones

Lord, while we use technical terms of launching, and all of that stuff, Lord, we don't want any of all of this to stand in the way of you getting glory and you getting honor.

Eric Mennel

What did the launch look like? How many people were there?

Watson Jones

Man, I think it might have been maybe 150, maybe more.

Eric Mennel

Wow.

Watson Jones

Yeah.

Eric Mennel

That must have been huge. That must have felt really great.

Watson Jones

It did. I cried, actually. And I'm not really a public crier. But I cried that day.

Eric Mennel

Really?

Watson Jones

Yeah.

Eric Mennel

Why?

Watson Jones

Well, partly because I was surprised. When you have a launch, there's a gamble, man. And the deepest fear is, no one comes. And the fact that I walked in, and there were-- it was a lot of people there.

I wanted to talk about this, because I need to define, why are we starting a church in a city of churches? You can drive down the street and you can see 10 of them on one block. There's a street not far from here where you can count five of them on one block.

And it's simply to say this. You can't have too many, number one. But number two, we are being sent-- we, as the Church of Restoration, are being sent to represent the reconciler.

AJ Smith

Amen. Can we give the Lord praise one more time for His word going forth this morning?

[APPLAUSE]

Amen.

Yeah, we maxed out. We absolutely-- we had standing room in the-- it was standing room in the back. We completely maxed out. And it was like, OK this is great.

Leah Smith

So when I saw those people, I was like, OK, this is going to be like a regular church-type thing-- see you next week.

Eric Mennel

Leah Smith again, AJ's wife.

Leah Smith

I wasn't thinking about it at that time, Eric. I wasn't thinking about church planting-- you kind of start small, and then you grow, and then you grow, and then you grow. I wasn't anticipating that, in the weeks to follow, the numbers would drop so harshly.

Eric Mennel

The next week, only about 60 people showed up, fewer than half the launch. And then the next week was about the same, maybe even a little fewer. It turns out, a lot of the people who packed the church that first week were friends and family-- people already committed to other churches, but who came out once to show support. And so before long, Watson and AJ were back to the small group of about 30 or 40 people they had pulled in before moving into the building.

They were a year and a half into their three-year mission and they were stuck. So they tried new tactics, more direct forms of networking. They went door to door and prayed with people in the neighborhood. They tried getting members to invite their friends to church, rather than just strangers.

Watson Jones

We would have invite cards. And we would say, listen, let's invite them to church on this day. We had them all on MailChimp. When we had big parties, like a Christmas party, we would email them out. And we would see who read them. Very few people would even open them.

Eric Mennel

Some people would come, visit for a week, maybe two. But they wouldn't stay.

Watson Jones

We had good follow-up. Like, we always-- me and AJ would hand-write cards to visitors. And there would be people who would comment, like, I love this church, all this other stuff. And they just never-- they would never come back.

Eric Mennel

All these people would visit. Why wouldn't they stay?

Watson Jones

I don't know. I don't know.

Eric Mennel

There were periods over the next year where attendance was so low, one person told me it felt like the band was playing for itself. The hardest stretches for Watson?

Watson Jones

Summer months. Summer months is when everybody in Philadelphia went to the shore, you know? Or everybody traveled. And so attendance-wise, man, it felt like someone took a scalpel and cut massive chunks off the church. Those periods were extremely deflating. I mean, they were dark moments.

Sometimes, I would battle depression. Most preachers tend to take Monday off, because you tend to be more prone to depression on a Monday, because Sunday, you expend so much of yourself, you know? You're preaching, and then you're talking to people. You're counseling people. You have meetings and all that other stuff.

But for a church planter in an urban church struggling to move this thing, it was exponentially worse. You're tired. You're busy. You're lonely. You're burned out.

I would wonder, was this God, or was this me? Did God really call me to Philly, or did he not? I felt like quitting, because any church planter I would ever talk to would say that they felt that at some point.

Eric Mennel

Nearly two years went by like this. They'd get up to 60 people, and then they'd drop again. They were coming up on March 2017, their three-year deadline.

It's not that you can't plant a church in a neighborhood like this and succeed. The church that Watson was a resident at, run by a pastor named Dr. Eric Mason-- it's nearly 12 years old now, with hundreds of attendees every week. Another preacher, named Doug Logan, has done something similar in Camden, New Jersey.

But these guys, the Erics and the Dougs-- they are machines. They are not like normal people. They write books and organize conferences. They have web series. It's exactly the kind of mentality you imagine in a successful startup CEO. Watson was a talented guy with a lot of energy. But he wasn't that.

Watson Jones

A lot of the times, I felt it was something about me. Maybe I'm doing something wrong. Maybe I'm missing something. This is not happening because you're just not a great leader, or you're not a great preacher, or you're not a great whatever, whatever, whatever. I don't know.

Eric Mennel

Yeah.

Watson Jones

I don't know.

Eric Mennel

On top of all this, Watson and his wife were dealing with all kinds of complicated family stuff.

Watson Jones

We had a miscarriage before my third child, and that was very painful. We had a diagnosis of autism on my first child. And in that same period, while starting a church, my wife almost died while giving birth to my final child. And all of that was a lot of trauma. I think it probably eventually made me wonder, is my time up?

Eric Mennel

Time was up. The three-year clock ran down. They still had some money coming in from their donors, and they were getting by. But Watson knew, some of those donors were going away. It wasn't going to be enough to pay both him and AJ. So last spring, Watson took a trip back home to Chicago, alone, to see his family.

Watson Jones

That weekend was Mother's Day weekend, actually. And I was on a layover in Chicago and I got to see my mother, right? And my mother-- it was the first time I had been with her on a Mother's Day for some years-- like, five years. It was so special. And I just started to feel like, man, if I could not go back, I wouldn't go back.

I loved my church deeply. But I started to feel like the Lord was saying, it's time. So I talked to my wife about it. And I just said, look, I'm just going to tell you this. Don't get mad at me. But I'm just going to let you know exactly what I'm thinking here. And my wife said to me, you know, Watson, I've been feeling the same way.

Eric Mennel

And then, one Sunday morning last October, Watson got up in front of the congregation of Restoration. And he gave them a sermon that seemed like advice to prepare them for the road ahead.

Watson Jones

This is the part in your life where you cannot find your way. You don't know to go left. You don't know to go right. You don't know to go up. You don't know to go down.

You don't know who to call. You don't know where to go. This is the in-between times. And in-between times, according to the biblical narrative, have the ability to either make you, or they can break you.

Eric Mennel

After the service, he had all the members stay for a meeting, at which point he said he was officially stepping down and they'd be going home to Chicago with his family. Taking over the church, AJ.

Leah Smith

My first-- my first reaction was no-- like, no, no.

Eric Mennel

AJ's wife, Leah.

Leah Smith

No, you're not. I mean, majority African-American church. You're white.

Eric Mennel

To be clear, Leah's mother is black. But her father is white and a pastor for majority-black congregations. But, she says, AJ is really, really white.

Leah Smith

AJ-- he's not submerged in black culture. He's just not. I mean, it just was just weird to me. And I felt a little bit self-conscious about it, and still do.

Eric Mennel

After moving back to Chicago, Watson looked around for another job. And he found himself drawn to exactly what he had been trying to disrupt-- an old church with a few hundred members and lots of years of baggage, Compassion Baptist Church. It was originally incorporated in 1879, two years after the end of Reconstruction.

[APPLAUSE]

[CHEERING]

This is a recording from the morning Watson was installed as the new pastor there. He's onstage in a suit. Turns out, the look really works for him. And behind him is the church's choir-- which, alone, is almost as large as Restoration was when Watson left.

Watson Jones

At the church I'm at, for instance, the church is older than me. It's 138 years old. And my wife and I definitely brought the median age down some when we got there.

But it's been interesting to see the life in that church with me being there, the new, young guy. Younger people are starting to come or come back. So it shows me that you can be effective in an established church. But seven years ago, I didn't believe that. Seven or eight years ago, I didn't believe that at all.

Some of those churches, man, survived the civil rights movement. Some of those churches brought black people in these cities through hellacious times. And then I, this little 26, 27, 28-year-old guy who just got a master's degree, wet behind the ears, I got the audacity to stand and critique something that's been around longer than me?

Eric Mennel

Yeah.

Watson Jones

So my thoughts on that have changed.

Eric Mennel

When Watson looks back at what went wrong at Restoration, there's a mix of things he comes back to. Partly, he thinks, it was him. He was a guy from Chicago trying to reach native Philadelphians. He had a big personality, but the planting process drained a lot of that out of him.

But the real problem was probably their original premise-- to buck the conventional wisdom and locate in a neighborhood that wasn't gentrifying. People were already settled, stable. Now, Watson realizes just how much harder that made things. His intention was pure, but he didn't understand the difficulty of what he was setting out to do.

If you want something to grow and be self-sustaining, this was not the place to do it. And the rest of the church gets that now. After Watson left, Restoration moved into a new neighborhood, one more in transition. And they bought a building. They're learning from their mistakes-- or anyway, they hope they are.

Ira Glass

Eric Mennel-- he tells the story of what happens after AJ takes over the church and moves it to a different area. That is the new season of the podcast StartUp. You can find StartUp at Apple Podcasts or gimletmedia.com, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts.

[MUSIC - "I'M WORKING ON THE BUILDING" BY B.B. KING]

Coming up, another newcomer arrives into a neighborhood. But instead of trying to get people to pray, her goal was simpler. She just wants them to drink. But attracting sinners can be just as tricky as attracting saints. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Hole in the Wall

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, If You Build It, Will They Come? Stories of people working and trying their hardest to create something, making mistakes they never thought could be mistakes. We've arrived at Act Two of our program-- Act Two, Hole in the Wall.

So one of our coworkers here at the radio show, Neil Drumming, enjoys a drink now and then. And since he moved into his neighborhood a few years ago, he has visited just about every bar there, except one. He has stayed away. He'll explain why.

And just a quick heads up here in the podcast that this story has some people in it who do not go to church, and we have un-beeped their ungodly cursing here in the podcast version of the show. If you want a beeped version-- maybe you're listening with kids, maybe you were interviewed in the first half of the program-- that version is at our website. Here's Neil.

Neil Drumming

Last year, this restaurant in my neighborhood got into a lot of trouble with the locals. Summerhill, the restaurant, sits at the northeast corner of St. Marks and Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights, a rapidly gentrifying area in Brooklyn. Basically, what happened was, in July of 2017, just after Summerhill opened to the public, the restaurant's owner, a white woman from Canada named Becca Brennan, put out a press release touting a few of her new venture's more unique characteristics-- surf club vibe, massive accordion window, and then, oddly, a quote, "bullet hole-ridden wall."

The release stated, yes, that bullet hole-ridden wall was originally there. And yes, we're keeping it. In an interview with the website Gothamist, Brennan suggested that this interior wall, speckled with paint and cracked plaster, was left over from a rumored back-room illegal gun shop. Brennan also told the reporter that Summerhill would be serving something called 40-ounce wine in paper bags.

This kind of thing happens so much in gentrifying Brooklyn that it's hardly notable anymore. Some trendy eatery, bar, or boutique flower shop will open where there used to be an old record store or a Caribbean takeout joint. And the owners will keep the crumbling facade, a faded sign, or a rusty light fixture visible, as if to say, hey, we love what used to be here. We're not here to change the neighborhood. We just want to be a part of it.

But in this case, Becca Brennan was indulging a bit of dark urban fantasy. The holes in the wall in question were not bullet holes, but actually anchor points for one of those big commercial refrigerators you find in any bodega. Summerhill had been completely remodeled from an old corner store that had once stood in that location.

Gothamist immediately ran a story about Summerhill's launch that included the interview with Brennan and a quote from a member of the Crown Heights Tenants Union accusing her of profiting from the neighborhood's unfortunate history of violence. TV news outlets and other websites, like Eater, picked up the story. And the next thing you know--

Woman

You ain't gonna take some motherfucking pain!

Neil Drumming

--there was an angry mob standing outside Summerhill, protesting.

Woman

You not gonna take our pain and make it a novelty!

Neil Drumming

She said, "You're not going to take our pain and make it a novelty." This is from a video shot by Gothamist in July of last year. There were a lot of different kinds of people in the crowd outside of Summerhill, mostly young, presumably new to the neighborhood, certainly not all black. But the woman standing on the chair, yelling, is black. And when she shouts, "You're not going to take our pain and make it a novelty," she's talking about the pain of a predominantly African-American community that has long struggled with gun violence.

I'd been living in Crown Heights less than a couple of years when this all went down. But when I moved here, one of the things I noticed were the signs-- the actual signs posted in storefronts near my apartment counting the days since the last shooting incident. Becca Brennan had chosen to make light of an issue that many people in the area took very seriously. And when a community meeting was called a month later to discuss it, what she said to the group just made things worse. She downplayed how much she'd talked about the bullet holes.

Becca Brennan

People would come in and say, are you keeping that wall? And I was-- I said yes. And some people would say, are those bullet holes? And I never once, to a person, said, yes, those are bullet holes. They are obviously holes from anchors in the wall. That's where the soda fridge was when the bodega was up, OK? So I'm sorry I have a sense of humor and--

Neil Drumming

That meeting got pretty heated. Brennan remained defensive and defiant as locals and their elected officials challenged her to apologize for her insensitivity. Some predicted that, without her contrition, Summerhill would soon shut down. Here's audio from another protest outside the restaurant, calling for just that.

Crowd

Bye-bye, Becky. Bye-bye, Becky. Bye-bye, Becky.

Neil Drumming

Becca Brennan didn't want to talk to us for this story. When Summerhill first opened, I had thought about stopping in for a drink a couple of times. But after I heard about the protest and skimmed the articles, staying clear felt like a no-brainer.

This conflict had two distinct sides. And even though I was pretty new to the neighborhood myself, there was no way I was going to align with the 31-year-old white gentrifier who fabricates a memorial to violence out of distressed concrete and an unconventional sense of humor. No question, I would stand with my people-- which, in a practical sense, just meant going instead to the bar across the street or the one around the corner.

I didn't think about Summerhill for months. And then, less than a year later, it was 10 or 11 o'clock on a weekend, and I walked past the place. It was packed. The restaurant sits at an intersection and customers were spilling out onto the corner-- the same corner that had been overwhelmed with pissed-off protesters just last summer.

Now, though, people inside and out seemed happy. They were drinking, partying, and it was really loud. I remember, because the DJ was playing something from Camp Lo's 1997 cult classic, Uptown Saturday Night. I love that album.

Oh, yeah, and pretty much everybody in the place was black. I felt like I'd missed the memo. Like, who ordered us to stand down? Not that I'd ever really stood up, but a lot of people had. I was at a bar across the street from Summerhill when I met a really friendly guy named Tashaka, who'd also been avoiding the crowds at Summerhill.

Tashaka

But the reason I don't go in is because, initially, it was because she was-- they were being-- she was being boycotted and I didn't want to cross the line.

Neil Drumming

So you didn't actually protest?

Tashaka

Hm?

Neil Drumming

You didn't actually protest?

Tashaka

Did I actually protest? Mm, I won't say-- I didn't-- I didn't stand outside.

Neil Drumming

Yeah, me neither.

Neil Drumming

So why do you think that people started going after all? Why did black people decide--

Tashaka

Because--

Neil Drumming

--to start going?

Tashaka

--we're very forgiving.

Neil Drumming

Say it again?

Tashaka

We're very forgiving. It's like, you can smack us in the face, and if you say you're sorry and you're not going to do it again, we'll usually accept you. You know it's true. You're smiling, and you're giggling, but you know it's true.

Neil Drumming

For the record, I don't think I was giggling. Look, I take Tashaka's point. To put it lightly, African-Americans have been very forgiving about a lot of things over the years. But that wasn't a very satisfying answer. I just kind of wanted to know what really happened. So I walked across the street.

Neil Drumming

And what made you come here?

Woman 1

We were walking down Nostrand, and we were just trying to find somewhere to have a quick drink. And we just stumbled upon this place and decided to try it.

Neil Drumming

What are you guys drinking?

Woman 1

Oh, rum punch.

Woman 2

Rum punch.

[LAUGHING]

Neil Drumming

Some folks hadn't heard anything about the drama from last year.

Woman 3

You know, I don't even-- I didn't even know that. I think I'm-- yeah, I didn't know that.

Neil Drumming

Some people, like Tara here, had heard about the wall and the alleged bullet holes, and definitely felt some kind of way about it.

Tara

And to put it on display and not be a person of color, and not have been a person who experienced that day in, day out, that's not your story to tell. That's our story to tell.

Neil Drumming

But the wall's been plastered over. Work from a local artist hangs there now. From Tara's point of view, the slate has been adequately wiped clean. She's there all the time now.

Tara

Yeah, I feel like things deliberately changed here. I think there's definitely a different vibe here. I think there's a different culture provided here than that was provided beforehand.

Neil Drumming

This is Neil-- another black Neil in Brooklyn. Who knew?

Neil

Like, I'll post on Snapchat and I'll have the Summerhill geotag. And somebody will be like, oh, you go to that racist bar? That has happened before on my Snapchat.

Neil Drumming

He's here nevertheless, undaunted-- in fact, twice in two nights. And the reason he keeps coming back?

Neil

Oyo, who is now part owner-- I knew him from working at another bar. So I knew that he was working here, or had become an owner here. So I decided to come here to support him.

Neil Drumming

And like that, I had my answer. I heard this from people inside and out of Summerhill-- staff and bartenders at other bars, regulars and haters. If you want to know why so many people come to Summerhill, look for Oyo.

Wallahi Oyo-- he mostly goes by just Oyo-- is the executive chef at Summerhill. He became partial owner of the restaurant shortly after all the controversy began. He comes up with the menu. He picks the DJs. On a busy Saturday night, you might find him standing out front, scanning Nostrand Avenue from beneath a black baseball cap, presumably looking for more customers. The word was, the embattled Becca Brennan took a diminished role in her own business so that a 27-year-old black man could become the face of Summerhill.

Neil

It's not like she has no involvement. There's a lot of stuff that she still does. But I feel like, mostly, when people come here, they see Oyo.

Neil Drumming

Oyo's wasn't just a symbolic contribution. I spoke to him in the kitchen that he oversees. If you ask him what exactly he and Becca did to get black people to come Summerhill after the protests and the bad press, he'll tell you nothing. He and his partner just weathered the storm, and eventually, people came. But that's not exactly true. Faced with the storm, Oyo sent up flares.

Wallahi Oyo

And I said-- I told my friends, yo, come on. I need help. My bar has been protested. I need help. I mean, I need-- you know what I'm saying? I need y'all to come support, because I'm drowning.

Neil Drumming

And from the look of things, many of them did come. Maybe you've heard, we're a forgiving people. But not all of us.

Justine Stephens

She's using his blackness, in a way, to build this business and make it cool again, because of her mistake.

Neil Drumming

This is Justine Stephens. She and two of her peers organized the first protests against Summerhill after reading about the place on Gothamist last year. She still refuses to step foot inside. But she has noticed Summerhill becoming increasingly popular with black folks in the last few months. She says that's all Oyo remaking the place's image.

Justine Stephens

A lot of their online press is kind of fashioned in a way where it's-- it looks hip. It looks like a club scene. Like, if I take out my phone now and take a look at it-- like Wednesday Night Jump Up, for example. I don't think Caucasian Becca Brennan from Toronto would say "jump up."

Neil Drumming

I mean, wouldn't that be something that is more representative-- that kind of marketing, that kind of branding-- more representative of the community?

Justine Stephens

But is it pandering?

Neil Drumming

I don't know. Is it? I mean, if-- it's kind of like, if they advertise for something, they advertise something that people in the community want, or cleave to, or are excited by, and those people come, and they support it, is that pander--

Justine Stephens

No, I think that's totally fair. I think, if it was any other bar that he decided to open up or join forces with, I think that's fair. But again, the profits are not fully going to him. And he's doing her a big-ass favor by making grits and playing Beyonce.

Neil Drumming

On Instagram, Justine accused Oyo of helping Becca Brennan get the quote unquote, "black dollar." And this annoyed the hell out of Oyo.

Wallahi Oyo

I'm doing this for my pockets, you know what I'm saying? This is my business. Don't think that I'm doing this for her.

I don't think she's using me. If anything, I'm using Becca, you know what I'm saying? Like, trust me. This is for my pockets.

Neil Drumming

Oyo thinks about his pockets a lot. An unapologetic capitalist, Oyo learned from his dad, who owned a nail salon nearby. Later, Oyo himself ran a DVD shop on the block, and then he worked as a chef at a black-owned bar down the street. He said that he loves doing business in Crown Heights, and that people in the neighborhood have been waiting for him to open up his own spot.

Before the protests happened, Oyo convinced Becca Brennan to let him launch a pop-up sandwich shop inside her fledgling restaurant. They were both satisfied with how that went, so they started negotiating for Oyo to accept an ownership stake in the restaurant.

Then came Justine and the protesters. Oyo took the deal anyway. It was the open door that he'd been waiting for, and there was no way he wasn't going to walk through it, no matter how many people stood outside, jeering. He became partners with Becca.

Neil Drumming

Were you worried?

Wallahi Oyo

No. My confidence in myself was, no, I'm not worried. Me, you know, I feel like I'm Oyo. I can make it happen.

Neil Drumming

Even Oyo will admit that Becca Brennan made a mistake. And for most people, that was the story-- a white woman who offended some people in a historically black neighborhood. But it's this other, smaller interaction that gets to me more-- two black people, Justine and Oyo, pointing at each other, asking who really belongs here.

When Justine saw Oyo defending his mostly silent white partner, she saw a black man who was willing to sell out his community for bread crumbs. Justine was new to the area, but her father grew up in Brooklyn. She thought that the people in the neighborhood deserved better and that she needed to alert them. Oyo was, in her mind, a puppet.

But when Oyo looked out and saw Justine leading a crowd of mostly white protesters, he didn't see a representative of the community. He was from the community. He had a tattoo on his arm of the street sign at Bedford and St. Marks, right up the block. Justine, who was from Norwalk, Connecticut, had chemically straightened hair, and she was threatening his pockets.

Justine Stephens

I had braids. I'm not trying to look like no fucking white bitch, I'm telling you. I'm telling you--

Neil Drumming

Justine sent me this recording from that day. It's noisy, but if you tune out the strands of Whitney Houston emanating from inside Summerhill, you can hear a screaming match erupt between Justine and Oyo.

Justine Stephens

Get the fuck out of there.

Wallahi Oyo

You grow up black and you straighten your hair?

Neil Drumming

Oyo goes low almost immediately, attacking Justine for relaxing her hair texture to look like a white woman's while fighting for a so-called black cause. When Justine says that's what black women do, Oyo replies, "Stupid black women." In the days following this eruption, Justine received even more hateful and disturbing messages via Facebook.

Justine Stephens

Can I say all the words?

Neil Drumming

Sure.

Justine Stephens

OK. "Go kill yourself, bitch. You're a fucking black bitch who wants to be white, but out here protesting about Black Lives Matter. You got nothing to do. Claim you're so pro-black, but have mad white people protesting with you, like they really give a fuck about you. You're really--"

Neil Drumming

The Facebook messages went on and on. They were anonymous, but because the insults were similar to things he'd said to her face, Justine thinks Oyo was responsible. I asked him about it. He doesn't deny that the comments could have come from some of his associates trying to support him in the worst way imaginable, but he insists that it wasn't him.

Oyo told me that he mocked Justine's hair because he was raised in a home where relaxers and weaves weren't allowed, where keeping your hair natural was a sign of how pro-black you were. But then, it was Oyo's mother who ultimately told them to apologize to Justine, because he shouldn't talk to black women like that. He did try. Justine showed me contrite messages he'd sent to her on Instagram. But she's no longer interested in opening a dialogue with Oyo or anyone involved with Summerhill.

Neil Drumming

So what would it take for you to visit that bar?

Justine Stephens

I'm not going to. I'm actually afraid to go in there, because I'm not going to-- again, I don't want to risk my safety.

Neil Drumming

Have you walked past it?

Justine Stephens

I walk past it every day.

Neil Drumming

I have to say, it really bothered me to hear about this seemingly unbridgeable chasm between Justine and Oyo. And not just because Justine shouldn't have to fear for her safety in her own neighborhood, and not just because the debate they're essentially having over who is a bigger sellout and who is more authentically black is an ugly, unwinnable contest and more than a little absurd.

But mostly, it upsets me simply because she's 26 and he's 27. They're both young and black, with roots in Brooklyn. She likes soca. His bar blasts soca music well into the night. It just doesn't seem like they should be so far apart.

Ira Glass

Neil Drumming is one of the producers of our show.

Act Three: An Awful Place That You’re Lucky To Get To

Ira Glass

Act Three, An Awful Place That You're Lucky to Get To. OK, so this is something that never really happens. We have a couple minutes left in the show. And I'm glad, because it lets me read you this thing that I like.

This is kind of tangentially on theme with If You Build It, They Will Come. It's about old age, which, I guess, is a place that is built for us. And maybe we get there. I don't know. Don't think too hard about that.

Donald Hall died a few weeks ago. He was on the show years back, and I knew him a tiny bit. He was a poet and writer, the poet laureate of the United States for a while. He wrote about lots of things.

But in the last few years, he's been writing about old age in this utterly unsentimental, lucid way that I really, really love, like in this piece. This is from his book, Essays After 80.

"After a life of loving the old, by natural law, I turned old myself. Decade follows each other. 30 was terrifying. 40, I never noticed because I was drunk. 50 was best, with a total change of life. 60 extended the bliss of 50.

Then came my cancers, Jane's death." Jane was his wife. "And over the years, I traveled to another universe. However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy.

It's alien. And old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant. They can be annoying. In the supermarket, those old ladies won't get out of my way.

Most important, they are permanently other. When we turn 80, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we're old, we're reminded when we try to stand up and when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.

People's response to our separateness can be callous, can be good-hearted, and is always condescending. When a woman writes to the newspaper approving of something that I've done, she calls me a nice old gentleman. She intends to praise me with 'nice' and 'gentleman.' 'Old' is true enough. And she lets us know that I am not a grumpy old fart.

But 'nice' and 'gentleman' put me in a box where she can rub my head and hear me purr. Or maybe she would prefer me to wag my tail, lick her hand, and make ingratiating dog noises."

Anyway, that's by Donald Hall, from his book, Essays After 80. He just published another book on the subject with the vivid name, A Carnival of Losses. I recommend both books, or especially his book, Without, which is poetry that he wrote when his wife, Jane Kenyon, died. Anyway, thanks, Donald.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Alvin Melathe and Neil Drumming. People who helped make the show today-- Dana Chivvis, Jarrett Floyd, Damien Graef, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, Angelina Mosher, Lulu Miller, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Simeon, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Sharif Youssef, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our managing editor is Susan Burton.

Special thanks today to Emma Whitford, Sai Mokhtari, Rebecca Birmingham, Simone Polanen, Sarah Sarahsen, Alex Blumberg, Peter Leonard, Lisa Pollak, and Haley Shaw, who did a lot of the music in our church story today. Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 600 episodes for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Thanks as always to our program's cofounder, Mr. Torey Malatia. And now, he is so generous, he agreed to cater and also costar in Shonda Rhimes' new Netflix series about the music business--

Justine Stephens

Doing her a big-ass favor by making grits and playing Beyonce.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira glass, back next week with more stores of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "HOLD ON I'M COMING" BY SAM AND DAVE]

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