Corey Allen and Johanna Yaun grew up on the same street in Newburgh and have lots of respect for one another.
They usually agree on most local issues, but today they find themselves on opposite sides of the AME Zion Church debate.
The Rev. Milton Stubbs and AME Zion leaders have begun the process of getting permission to demolish most of the existing 113-year-old church at 109 Washington Street in the East End historic district.
In its place would rise a new complex on four combined lots that would include a new street-level church, apartments and space for community events and meetings, according to the plan.
In addition to replacing the church, the project would bring revenue to AME Zion. It includes retaining the distinctive tripartite façade and its arched stained-glass windows, and the stained-wood ceilings over the sanctuary and basement fellowship hall.
The plans are currently under review by Newburgh’s Architectural Review Commission.
Corey Allen: Let them build
Corey Allen, 41, is a lifelong Newburgh resident, a 1995 graduate of Newburgh Free Academy and a Neighborhood Revitalization Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity in the city.
“I have very strong ties with this church,” Allen says. “When I was a child, I went there as a Cub Scout and my godparents were parishioners.”
“But a church is not a building, it’s a congregation,” he says. “And like most congregations, this one is suffering because it is aging out and maintenance costs are soaring.”
Allen is a former member of the First United Methodist Church on Liberty Street, and sees parallels.
“My church was forced to close down in 2018 for the same reasons,” he says.
“The congregation was dwindling and they couldn’t afford the upkeep, and the exact same thing is happening here.”
“The First United Methodist Church congregation was closed and forced to scatter. But the AME Zion congregation is looking for a way to maintain their presence here in Newburgh, and I say, let’s let them do it.”
“The building dates to 1905 and it’s not the original building,” he says. “The first was a smaller wooden structure built in 1833, so it’s not the same church that Frederick Douglass spoke in.”
“The AME Zion Church was founded on the principals of anti-racist worship of Christ,” Allen says.
“Let’s face it, there are black churches and white churches right here in Newburgh,” he says. “This church was attacked twice in the 1860s by people who did not want the AME Zion parishioners worshipping here.”
“Fast forward to today, and it’s the same thing,” he says. “A group of white folks who have never stepped foot in this church telling the black congregation what to do with it.”
“In my opinion, the only way to save this congregation and the church from becoming another museum is to let them build,” Allen says.
“Same congregation, same pastor, same organization,” he says. “The only thing that would change is the building.”
Johanna Yaun: Save the structure
Johanna Yaun, 35, is a lifelong Newburgh resident, a 2002 graduate of Burke Catholic High School and is the Orange County Historian.
“My feeling is that this is the exact reason the Newburgh Architectural Review Commission exists,” Yaun says. “To prevent decisions being made that sound right at the moment but aren’t the best option long-term.”
“The AME Zion building is a testament to the strength of the early free black community of Newburgh,” she says. “They built this church at a time when it would have been difficult to do so in most communities.”
“I’m afraid that if we lose the structure, the next generation will ask why we saved George Washington’s house and not the AME Zion church,” she says. “And what message does that convey about what legacies our community values?”
“I think there are other solutions that save the structure and maintain the congregation in that structure,” she says. “Such as building the housing on those two vacant lots or selling those lots and using the funds to update the church building.”
“Because what is happening to this congregation is happening to all congregations,” she says. “And if this was happening to the Calvary Presbyterian Church on South Street I’d be making the same argument.”
“It’s hard enough to get people to understand the history of a city like Newburgh,” she says. “And by losing the physical structure, we are losing a gateway into the past.”
“Although it’s sad to see the congregation of First Methodist displaced from their church, it’s now being restored,” Yaun says.
“That building will have a new life and community purpose while preserving the architecture.”
“So even if the AME Zion church leaders were to demolish the church in favor of a housing complex with a chapel for the dwindling and elderly members, what will happen when those congregates are gone?” she asks.
“If the historic church remains, it will have new life and purpose as the next generation sees fit,” she says.
“But if it is torn down, we’ll just have more apartments that could have been built anywhere.”
John DeSanto is a freelance photojournalist. Find more of his 845LIFE stories, photos and videos at recordonline.com. Reach John at firstname.lastname@example.org
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