Calvary Presbyterian Church

The Successful Integration of an Inner-city Congregation

On April 6, 1953, Dr. John Bruere, pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church, mentioned that a "certain colored woman has been attending our services frequently of late." The appearance of an African American woman in the church's congregation "raised in his mind the question of segregation." Further discussion concerning the vices of racial segregation ensued during the Session meeting of Calvary's Elders. After some discussion the Elders agreed Calvary would stand opposed to racial segregation.

Dedicated in 1890 on the corner of East 79th and Euclid Avenue, Calvary first catered to Cleveland's white elite. Women in fur coats and men dressed glamorously with top hats and overcoats, strolled down Euclid Avenue on Sunday mornings. They entered the church eager to socialize with their neighborhood acquaintances and spread their fortunate circumstances, in the name of religion, to less fortunate members of society. From the church's inception, Calvary's congregation prided itself on being a neighborhood church.

Since the church's founding, the surrounding community had made up the majority of the membership. As the elite left Euclid Avenue after the 1900s during the "flight to the Heights" phenomenon, Calvary chose to remain at its original location. When World War I created need for an alternative labor force, Cleveland factories turned to southern African Americans. In the ensuing Great Migration, southern blacks flooded into the central city, setting up residence predominantly in the Central neighborhood. By the 1950s, displacement due to urban renewal in Central caused African Americans to spread eastward into the neighborhoods surrounding Calvary.

Even before the influx of African American population, the neighborhoods surrounding Calvary had succumbed to neglect and visibly exuded a slum-like character. As African Americans moved in, they arrived in neighborhoods already tainted with poverty and despair. In the 1950s, with landlords' inattention to their properties and a lack of city housing inspections, slum-like conditions worsened. In addition, now racial tension accented the impoverished neighborhoods.

After Dr. Bruere had drawn attention to the question of racial segregation, Calvary's congregation emerged from behind the church's stone walls and filtered into the community. The congregation engaged with community members to clean up the neighborhood's houses and streets, close down bars, and rid the community of pesky vermin. In addition to polishing the surface of the neighborhoods, Calvary penetrated deep into the community to heal the wounds of racially spurred neglect. The programs aimed to instill pride, construct a new community image, and propagate the power of spirituality and morality to combat the negativity rampant in the neighborhoods. As a result of the cleanup programs, many area residents joined the church. Calvary's award-winning youth programs also attracted community residents. The Saturday Program aimed to keep the youth off the streets, providing a safe haven for children that came from broken homes. The church's free youth programs provided meals and educated the youth on practical skills. Calvary even had recreational sport teams. In the youth programs' heyday of 1966, WKYC-TV reported that, despite the Hough Riots, "nearly five thousand children" participated in Calvary's Saturday Youth Program.

The betterment of the neighborhoods surrounding Calvary, as well as the promotion of social justice, remained the church's mission. Upholding the charter members' credo, Calvary remained a neighborhood church. During the 1950s and 1960s the nation struggled with racial segregation and discriminatory rhetoric. Calvary succeeded in achieving a racially integrated congregation through community outreach programs. By 1967, many saw Calvary as a beacon of social justice and activism in the inner city.

Calvary today continues to promote the same mission of social justice the church followed in previous decades. Through hot meal and childcare programs and cultivation of a welcoming atmosphere, Calvary still engages the community. A gradual decline of church attendance, however, forced Calvary pastors following Dr. Bruere to focus on membership retention and scouting. The racial congregational balance, once highlighted as one of the church's defining features, has since dissipated. Today Calvary Presbyterian Church, under the new name New Life at Calvary, has been described as one of "the largest predominantly African-American churches in Ohio." Regardless of the church's demographics, New Life at Calvary remains at the corner of East 79th and Euclid Avenue and continues to fight for social justice. New Life at Calvary remains a relevant fixture on Cleveland's east side.

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2020 East 79th Street, Cleveland, OH 44103