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Churches' labor finds role in marketplace


Tired of the long drive to the nearest Christian bookstore, parishioners of Long Reach Church of God in Columbia opened their own.

The congregation of Mount Hebron Memorial Church of God in Baltimore built a restaurant to be rid of an eyesore two blocks away.

Empowerment Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church has created a development corporation with plans to buy a strip shopping center and open four gas stations.

Once limited to low-profile ventures such as leasing land, religious institutions are buying up properties and starting businesses with a vigor that defies the traditional roles of church and business.

From Los Angeles to North Carolina to Baltimore, churches are opening coffee houses, restaurants, catering services and hair salons. Greater Baptist Church in Detroit recently leased land to Burger King. A Texas church has its own fitness center.

"American churches have always flirted with capitalism," said Bill Leonard, dean of the divinity school and a professor of church history at Wake Forest University. "The change is that churches are now becoming more directly connected to the business enterprise."

There's no one reason for the trend, experts and church leaders said.

Some churches use businesses to supplement Sunday offerings, while others want to revitalize forgotten neighborhoods and teach their congregations about enterprise and financial independence.

Businesses are also a tool for churches to spread their message. For churches like the Long Reach Church of God, it's practical.

The church opened the Columbia Celebration Center bookstore three years ago so worshippers wouldn't have to drive 30 miles or more to buy books, T-shirts, Bibles and other Christian items.

"There was none in the area," said store manager Irvin Young. "We had 80,000 people in Columbia and no Christian bookstore."

Church members declined to disclose revenue but said the store's profit is put back into the venture, while some is donated to church coffers. It employs an average of 10 people from the church and the community.

"I think churches should be in the ministry," said Young. "This just happens to be a ministry that makes money, but it's a ministry for the community, and that was the basis for opening it."

New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore also uses its catering business to minister and spread the Gospel.

"It's an outreach effort," said Joi Thomas, director of media relations and promotions. "It's a chance for us to get back into the community and to evangelize in another form."

The church has always had an informal food service, but it wasn't until seven years ago that it hired a chef and turned it into a separate, for-profit business.

The company is booked year-round with clients that include city agencies, the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Eubie Blake Cultural Center. The business employs about 50 people, including three pastry chefs and four cooks.

Enoch Pratt uses New Psalmist to cater its senior citizens lunch program.

"The senior program is a grant-funded program that pays for itself, so we really needed to find the best service for the money, " said Judy Cooper, who is in charge of programs and publicity for the library. "They do it at a price that is affordable."

As more churches become involved in business, they're learning the tricky balance between nonprofit and for-profit designations.

"There are tax implications that the churches have to be careful about," said Trey Graham, a Baptist minister in Texas and author of the book Lessons for the Journey. "Just like any business they can collect the income, but the tax goes to the state and federal government."

Churches are setting up separate business and development entities to deal with the issues.

For instance, Mount Hebron Church in Baltimore created the for-profit Saint's Plaza Development Corp. three years ago to open Heaven's Gate Eatery, a restaurant in West Baltimore. The building that houses the restaurant was set up as a nonprofit owned by the church, so state funds could be used to help pay for building costs.

The Empowerment Temple has established the Economic Empowerment Consortium as the church's business arm. Plans are to open four gas stations called Power Gas and a shopping strip of minority-owned businesses.

The Spirit of Faith Ministry in Temple Hills created the for-profit Hosana Enterprises and bought a shopping strip using loans and $850,000 raised in tithes and offerings. That acquisition enabled it to open a hair salon, bookstore and upholstery shop. Profit is used to run the businesses, and some is donated to the church.

"Our pastor's vision is to take care of the whole man, meaning the spiritual and the physical part of man," said Timothy McLean, an elder at Spirit of Faith Ministry. "He knows that women get their hair done and men get their hair cut. Why not open a place up where people can get these services in a Christian environment?"

But Graham, the Texas minister, acknowledges that not everyone thinks churches should be in business. Despite this, he expects the trend to grow, particularly among mega-churches with 2,000 members or more.

"There are critics of the whole concept that say this isn't what the church should be doing," Graham said. "They say the church is losing its focus and question whether it's costing the church money that could be used elsewhere."

Church pastors and ministers argue that the businesses are just an extension of their ministry and the church's way of giving back.

"I think that this is important because in many instances people have been turned off by the church because they look at churches as the takers and not the givers," said the Rev. Jamal Harrison-Bryant of Empowerment Temple.

Bryant said his church intends to establish a business institute to teach minorities the ins and outs of running a business. The gas stations, he said, will be built in neglected areas around Baltimore and employ people in the community.

"We want to give a sense of ownership to the community, so that it's not just a business that's there but has no roots," Bryant said. "People take care of what belongs to them."

The lot where Heaven's Gate Eatery is erected was once littered with drug needles and trash. There were no sit-down restaurants in the neighborhood, just abandoned buildings, convenience stores and fast-food joints, said Mount Hebron's pastor, elder Henry B. Hunt.

Hunt said the restaurant is helping to improve the neighborhood and employs 20 people. The restaurant still struggles to pay its bills and hasn't made a profit yet, but when it does, the money will be donated to the church.

"By improving that lot, it helps to improve the blight in this community," Hunt said.

Earline Smiley, 73, and Dorothy Mason, 87, said they have noticed the change. The pair eat at the restaurant daily after morning prayer at Christian Memorial Church down the street.

"This is much better than what used to be here," Mason said at the restaurant one recent afternoon. "Here you have a nice Christian atmosphere."

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