In the Spotlight

News & Features
Make Change, Not Money
Part 1: A Church in Queens
By American RadioWorks
September 3, 1998

IN NEW YORK CITY, A CHURCH IN THE BOROUGH of Queens is both a religious congregation and a multi-million dollar enterprise. It's largely the product of one man's vision - minister and former Congressman Floyd Flake - who took over the church when there were just two employees, himself and a secretary.

Flake: Let us go before the lord in prayer. Everyone joining hands, one with the other. This is your church.
For more than twenty years, the Reverend Floyd Flake has exhorted his congregation to redeem their souls and rebuild their neighborhood. On this Sunday, from the pulpit of the grand new Allen A.M.E. cathedral, he will pray and preach and spend a lot of time urging the members of his flock, who already give $100,000 a week, to be even more generous with their contributions.
Flake: Everybody who's sick of me talking about money, pretend you're not.
And they don't seem to mind, perhaps because they know a great deal of the money is used by the church to invest in their community.

Allen A.M.E.'s congregation is huge; more than 10,000 members. So, while one service is still going on, people gather at the doors of the cathedral to wait for the next one. This is the Jamaica - St. Alban's area of Queens, not far from JFK Airport. It's big. And much of it has a suburban look; nice houses, well-kept, close together, even room to park on the streets. But it's patchy. In other parts of the community, buildings are rundown, lots of storefronts are shuttered, the people are poor and life is hard. Still, church members like Carlita Cassidy are pleased with the way much of the area's been transformed.

Cassidy: This was a dying community. Yes, it was. But it's changed. It's turned around now.
Carlita Cassidy can tick off a whole list of social service programs that have helped her poorer neighbors, and spurred economic development in this part of Queens. And she gives the credit to Floyd Flake and her fellow church members. Cassidy says they just got tired of waiting for the government to act.
Cassidy: I think that's what has to be done, when the government doesn't fulfill it's responsibility. The community, the church members, are going to bring about those programs that are very much needed. So we are doing it as much as we can for ourselves and encouraging others to do so.
When Floyd Flake came to Allen A.M.E. in 1976, it was a more conventional church, concentrating mainly on religious activities. But Flake was determined to do more. So he started pushing and building. Today, the Allen church employs 800 people and boasts a $24 million annual budget. Flake says he was convinced from the start that the neighborhood could be turned around.
Flake: Communities like this represent a fertile field of opportunity. Although this was a community defined as being "in decline", there were enough resources that the community did not have to die; that it did have a possibility for resurrection.
Flake decided that the Allen church should step in and fill the large gaps left in the community when business stopped investing and the government stopped responding. He used the classic methods of an entrepreneur; raising the initial capital from church members to start programs and build buildings, then attracted money from foundations and the government to do even more. And Flake says he's pleased to see how many nonprofit organizations are doing similar things in other cities.
Flake: Because they are closer to the pulse of the community, I think in the long term, "we the people" becomes a much more realistic statement of America when you are able to put the services right in the communities where people live and I think that nonprofits do that best.
The first large project Flake initiated was the Allen Community Senior Citizens Center, a sprawling complex where residents and seniors from the neighborhood can get lunch for 75 cents or for free, if they can't afford to pay. More than 400 elderly people live at the center. And it seems like Flake knows every one of them.

Flake: Hey, there. I'm good. Y'all all right?

Woman : We're blessed.

Flake: Where you going?

Woman: I'm coming.

Flake: From where? Dressed up, lipstick, hair done…what you up to? To the eye doctor? You've seen too much already.

Woman: I see you.
A few blocks away, the South Jamaica Multi-Service Center, which is also supervised by the church, provides all kinds of services to the area's poorer citizens. There's a community health clinic, a mental health center, family planning programs, teen counseling, a battered women's shelter, a Head Start program, and more.
Lucille Grant: Anything you need, you can find in this building.
Grant runs the programs for teenagers. She's worked in government-run service centers like this in other parts of the city, but got discouraged in those places because the people who came in often didn't get enough help, or the right kind of help. Grant says it's different here because people from the community are in charge.
Grant: I think that if they were not here, there would be fragmented services. That's where the Allen A.M.E. church, as the sponsor and manager of this building, come in. See, they put us together and get us to work cooperatively together.
Across the street from the Multi-Service Center is a stretch of land that had been vacant for decades. Overgrown and dangerous, an area that local residents were afraid to walk near. But on that same spot today, Joyce Bartlett tends to her garden.
Covino (reporter): You put a lot of flowers.

Bartlett: Yeah, yeah. I love flowers.

Covino: Why don't you tell me what you have here.

Bartlett: I don't know the names of them. (laughs) I just go to the store.

Covino: Aren't those petunias or something?

Bartlett: Yes, they are. They're petunias and those are evergreen trees over there.
This is the site of the Allen-Hall Estates. Forty-eight beige and tan duplexes with manicured lawns and winding drives subsidized, set aside for first-time buyers, and built two years ago. Each new home cost about $160,000. Joyce Bartlett could have never afforded a house like this on the private market. It would have cost nearly twice as much. And at first, she wasn't too hopeful of getting in here, either. She was skeptical when officials from the Allen church said the new owners would be chosen in a lottery. Still, Bartlett filled out her application and was surprised when she found out she'd made it.
Bartlett: Very surprised because - maybe I shouldn't say this - I don't belong to Allen church and I thought that most of the Allen church people, you know, who belonged to the church would get it. I felt that the people who went to the church would have the inside track on it.
In fact, only two of the new owners are members of Allen A.M.E. church, a fact that church officials point to with some pride. All of these accomplishments have made the Reverend Floyd Flake a very popular figure in this part of New York City and given him a powerful political base. The voters here sent him to Congress for eleven years, until he retired a few months ago. There's some talk that he'll run for mayor two years from now. Flake won't say what he's going to do except continue to expand the Allen church's development efforts. The latest plan is to demolish a row of rundown buildings right across the street from the new cathedral and build a mini-mall with a bank branch, a real estate office, even a Burger King that the church will own. Floyd Flake believes that's the next logical step for successful nonprofits, to start making money.
Flake: I believe that. I believe that nonprofits need to go into profit-making businesses to protect themselves long term, so they can have an avenue and vehicle that generates the revenue to help them do the good works they do and the service area.
Some religious leaders have criticized the many churches that have begun to branch out in the way Allen A.M.E. has. They say it will force these churches to water down their religious message and make them lose sight of their true mission. It's a position that Floyd Flake says doesn't fit with his experiences in Queens.
Flake: When you service the needs of people, it becomes the greatest evangelistic tool the church could have. And my argument would be, "The more vehicles that are created to allow you service people's needs, the more people will respond to that ministry," because they see it as not just a building sitting in the community, but they see it as a place where they know people's needs can be met. And if a ministry is nothing else that's really what it is.