In the heart of the Martin Luther King Jr. historical district in Atlanta lies Auburn Avenue, home of the civil rights struggle, a rich black business legacy and Sunday morning sermons at some of the largest African American congregations south of the Mason Dixon line. A quarter- block stretch of the of the avenue is lined on both sides by Wheat Street Plaza North and South and its two strip malls that house 10 small businesses.
What makes these malls significant is that they are the product of the Wheat Street Charitable Foundation, the nonprofit organization that serves as the development of Wheat Street Baptist Church. All the shop owners in the malls are members of the church and most of the businesses are blacked-owned. Four of the merchants have been in the mall since it was built over 25 years ago.
Wheat Street has known for some time what many black churches across the country are quickly discovering: that they can be catalysts for the creation of black businesses, jobs and wealth in African American communities. Currently, the Wheat Street church, which doesn’t own any of the businesses, clears more than $50,000 annually in rent. But business manager Eugene Jackson explains that it’s not all about creating money for the church: “Our mission is about creating economic opportunities for the people in our community.”
This brand of Christian capitalism encourages African Americans to pool their dollars to invest in each other and their communities. Unlike a corporation that keeps its profits, church-based business enterprises enrich the neighborhood by providing resources and much needed services like day care, soup kitchens and substance abuse counseling. When once empty storefronts become thriving businesses, property values of neighboring homes increase. In turn, this attracts more affluent residents and other businesses, which are more likely to take an active role in improving quality-of-life issues, such as safety and good schools. At its best, the cycle of inner-city poverty is reversed, creating a foundation for economic empowerment.
THE FRUITS OF GOOD WORKS
Through the efforts of its Charitable Foundation, which was essentially created to separate church and state for tax purposes, Wheat Street boasts more than $33 million in real estate. The church holdings include Wheat Street Towers, a senior citizens’ home, and Wheat Street Gardens, a low-income family housing development. The Towers were built in 1973 and the Gardens in 1964, financed with a combination of grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and church contributions.
The 2,000-member congregation also has a 1,000-member credit union with over $1 million in assets. “By belonging to a credit union, you are paying yourself first because you are saving and growing what you earn,” says Ben Logan, a 52-year-old accountant who has been a church member for 40 years. “Besides, If you go to a commercial bank, you’re nothing but a customer. If you join a credit union, you become an owner and share in the proceeds through interest dividends.”
The church’s involvement in developing real estate and creating a