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Pastor bet on future, won new start for black church

Tricia Romano
Seattle Times

Seattle — The Rev. Leslie David Braxton saw the writing on the wall in 1999. Members of his former congregation at Mount Zion Baptist Church were moving south, and in Seattle, the black middle class was already starting to shrink.

"Many of the people who used to live in the Central District have moved to the south towns or the edge of the city where they can get more house more affordably," Braxton said. "It's simple economics."

A data junkie and sociologist by training, the reverend rattles off statistics effortlessly. In 1999, he gleaned that in 20 years, the Central District wouldn't be the epicenter of the black community. "It was very clear that the process of gentrification was well under way," he said.

He pushed for Mount Zion to open a satellite campus south of the city. After some internal conflicts, he resigned and, in 2005 started his own church, New Beginnings Christian Fellowship, south of Seattle.

"I wanted to be ahead of the curve," he said.

As he predicted, the number of African-American families in the cities south of Seattle has skyrocketed; since 2000, the black population of Kent and Renton has increased by 98 percent.

For the reverend, it was all about location, location, location.

"If the majority of your people live more than 5 miles from your facility, in the long run, that can challenge congregational stability," he said.

With cars, "we have a destination culture," he said. "People drive past neighborhood churches to get to the church they want."

He bet that people would drive to his church. He was right. His congregation now counts 1,700 members.

He first started giving sermons at suburban Renton High School and Lindbergh High in Renton, Washington, until he found his current space, the former Renton Athletic Club, opened on New Beginning's four-year anniversary.

Technically in the city of Kent, the facility's location was a strategic decision by Braxton.

"When we started looking for property, it was very deliberate to choose a site that is literally on the dividing line," he said.

Like the members of his congregation, Braxton also got more house for his money. The facility contains a 1,200-seat sanctuary, a full basketball gym, a youth center, classrooms, an industrial kitchen, an early child center, a book store and a coffee bar.

"We're sitting on 8 1/2 acres. There's no way you'd be able to get that kind of property in the city." And if a similar building existed, he said, "it certainly wouldn't be affordable."

To Braxton, there's an upside, however. For many black families, the suburbs offer an opportunity to live out the American dream — good schools, the house with a two-car garage and a spacious yard — far more easily than the city. It's a reversal, he says, of white flight, common in the East Coast.

"Seattle and San Francisco kind of break the rules. When I was in the Northeast, on the East Coast in Buffalo, New York, it followed the paradigm where the affluent folks lived in the isolated, protected suburbs, where they had fled after the race riots in the '60s. You have this paradigm of poor folks trapped in the inner city," he said.

"Here, we have the opposite, where we are developing million-dollar condos in the city and higher-priced properties in the city, and the more moderate- to low-income folks moving out of the city."

Though some people might bemoan the loss of the Central District as a center of the black community, Braxton looks forward, not back.

"I'm not one who attaches a lot of nostalgia to placement. The best places to be are where your opportunities are better. And nobody wants to be where opportunities were; people want to be where opportunities are. Nostalgia don't buy bread, nostalgia doesn't pay rent, nostalgia doesn't buy clothes, nostalgia doesn't buy health care."