The impact of inner city commuter and community congregations on civic engagement and social action

Hara Leslie Wright-Smith, University of Pennsylvania


A critical mass of literature and recent studies has significantly expanded the base of knowledge involving congregations and faith-based civic and social involvement. The literature deepens understanding of the prominent role congregation's play in social service delivery to inner city neighborhoods, adding to a largely undocumented history in the United States. Some scholars believe, however, that congregations are vulnerable to neighborhood demographic change and question their future as viable resources to deal with divergent social ills that afflict many inner city poor communities and families. Such demographic shifts (which have resulted in class divisions among African American populations) and deepening social problems have reinforced the struggle for black congregations. As the 21st century dawns, congregations face new challenges as today's flight of the black middle class from inner city neighborhoods have resulted in further despair and isolation of residents that remain in cities. This research provides a thorough look at one community—as a representative of urban communities across the United States. Drawing from a case study of churches on the East Side of Wilmington, Delaware, this research employs both qualitative and quantitative approaches to determine whether today's demographic shifts influenced the way black congregations provide social services and respond to neighboring low income residents or can black churches demonstrate the ability to span class divisions. This dissertation found that as families continue to move from inner cities to the suburbs, new patterns of segregation are forming in the black community, impacting neighborhoods experiencing social and economic decline. The story of the East Side shows what happens as a result of social and economic changes tied to the movements of black populations. Widening economic gaps among African American populations, coupled with a historical shift from residential segregation to residential integration caused two types of congregations to emerge on the East Side—defined as commuter congregations and community congregations. Despite having experienced demographic change over time, this study finds that East Side congregations have not abandoned their social commitment to inner city neighborhoods.

Subject Area

Religious congregations|Urban planning|Area planning & development|African Americans

Recommended Citation

Wright-Smith, Hara Leslie, "The impact of inner city commuter and community congregations on civic engagement and social action" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3125921.