The evening dark had just settled in as a few cars trickled into the parking lot behind the St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church of God in Christ, one of southeastern San Diego’s oldest African-American churches. But the people arriving there were Latino, not black. They sat in their cars and waited.
Just before 7 o’clock, a long white van pulled in and parked next to a portable classroom. Jose Chavez and his 10 passengers filed out, while across the parking lot people emerged from their cars and walked toward him. They shook hands with him and with each other.
“Dios te bendiga,” they said. “God bless you.” Their pastor had arrived.
Over the next two-and-a-half hours, more than 70 people, almost all Mexican immigrants and their children, packed into the portable trailer they rent behind the church in Valencia Park to exalt God’s blessings in energetic song and prayer — all in Spanish. A decade ago this church did not exist. Then Bishop George D. McKinney, St. Stephen’s black pastor, realized the changes in his community were becoming too stark to ignore.
In the last decade, many of his black congregants have left the neighborhood of Valencia Park and been replaced by Latinos. Though it is still a center of San Diego’s African-American community, blacks are no longer a majority in the neighborhood. Ten years ago they made up 60 percent of its population. Today, blacks and Latinos each account for 44 percent, according to Census data.
The shift cemented a trend that has been several decades in the making in neighborhoods across southeastern San Diego’s Fourth City Council district, as black families have left and newer Latino families have moved in. Across census tracts covering the district, the number of black residents declined by 22 percent since 2000, while the number of Latino residents increased by 29 percent. A decade ago, two southeastern San Diego neighborhoods — Valencia Park and Emerald Hills — were still majority black. Since the scales tipped in both, not a single neighborhood in San Diego County remains so.
It is a trend not yet reflected in the community’s seats of power. They are still held, mostly, by African-Americans. But it is on full display in the aisles of the Malcolm X Library and the community’s single supermarket, on nearly every residential block, and perhaps most visibly in its churches, where pastors who once preached to large black congregations have seen them dwindle and realized a need to court the new majority.
It could take decades for that emerging Latino population to become a political force in southeastern San Diego. Unlike in Logan Heights and Barrio Logan east of downtown — whose Latino communities are well established and have a history of civic activism — in the city’s most southeastern neighborhoods, Latino leaders are hard to identify.
“Without a movement, demographic shifts and proportions don’t mean anything,” said Robert Tambuzi, executive director of the United African American Ministerial Action Council, a pastor-led social service group.
Nonetheless, the Latino shift has been dramatic and visible in every thread of the community’s fabric, in explicit and subtle ways. At the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park on Skyline Drive recently, Mexican teenagers played a fast-paced pickup soccer game. Mexican families waited in line to buy a quick dinner at Felipe’s Taco Stand on Euclid and Logan avenues in Lincoln Park. Around the corner, a small handmade sign in the window of the Jones Brothers Mississippi Barbecue, a black family-owned restaurant, reassured: “Se Habla Espanol.”
And there is acknowledgement that Latinos could ultimately transform the community’s political landscape, too.
“They’re a sleeping giant, and eventually they’re going to wake up,” said Barry Pollard, a community leader who challenged the district’s city councilman, Tony Young, in the last election. “It’s an underlying fear that African-Americans here have that we won’t have a black representative on the City Council because Latinos are, quote-unquote, moving in.”
With San Diego redrawing the boundaries of its City Council districts this year to coincide with the release of Census data, a group of residents and pastors, led by Pollard, is trying to influence how those lines are drawn. They want to ensure that the 4th Council District does not lose neighborhoods like Webster, which is still home to a large, civically engaged black population. The Fourth District is the seat of the city’s only black elected official, and shifting boundaries coupled with the shifting demographics could conspire to water down the African-American electoral voice.
“It would be a tragedy if the black community lost its seat on the City Council,” said Ed Smith, a firefighter who used to live in Oak Park and was eating at Annie Belle’s, a soul food restaurant, last week.
San Diego’s African-American population came of age in the middle of last century, when parts of southeastern San Diego were among the only areas of the city where black families arriving from the South could buy homes. In other neighborhoods, restrictions placed on deeds by developers prohibited owners from selling their houses to African-Americans.
The tension was palpable in southeastern San Diego, too. Bishop McKinney’s was one of the first black families to move into Emerald Hills, and he remembers white families calling utilities companies and posing as their black neighbors to get the power shut off. When he tried to buy a bigger house for his growing family in Spring Valley, a white neighbor successfully lobbied the bank to retract its mortgage offer, he said.
As the black community grew in southeastern San Diego, churches became one of its main units of organization, and pastors, more than anyone else, became the gatekeepers to that community, wielding the ability to draw hundreds of people to a town hall forum with a simple appeal at the end of Sunday service.
Derrick Hayes, who grew up in the community in the 1970s, remembered how black families would line up at the neighborhood bank on Euclid Avenue to cash or deposit their paychecks from the Navy or from one of the many industrial manufacturing businesses that were once southeastern San Diego’s economic backbone. Money in hand, they would walk to nearby grocery stores and black-owned businesses to shop. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Parade ran along Imperial Avenue, and black families would stroll the street eating hot links and reconnecting with friends until sunset.
Things started to change.
One day, the bank closed. Some families, like Hayes’, drove to banks outside the community. But many others started keeping money in their houses. Manufacturing plants started closing too. Black families lost their jobs. Crime increased. Young delinquents — people Hayes knew from school — started burglarizing homes because they knew there was cash.
Violence soared in southeastern San Diego’s neighborhoods in the 1980s and 90s as crack cocaine wreaked havoc on urban communities across the country. The intersection of Euclid and Imperial Avenues became known as the Four Corners of Death.
“I had 1,001 different ways to get home from school,” Hayes said. He was afraid. When he was a senior in high school, he said, he sabotaged his SATs so he would be denied admission to the University of California, San Diego. He knew he’d have to live at home if he got in, and was afraid to stay in his neighborhood. So he went to UC Santa Barbara instead, not wanting to return. He did, though, when his cousin was shot and killed.
Many families left — many of his black neighbors, in fact — because of crime, because there were no places to shop, no banks. Those kinds of deficiencies weigh heavily on a community trying to raise families, and they started to chip away at the nodes of black community life.
Pastors like McKinney saw their memberships dwindle. In the late 1970s and early 80s, his church had nearly 5,000 members. Today, just 300 families remain — roughly 1,000 members — and on any given Sunday only about 600 people attend one of the church’s three services.
As he watched his numbers shrink, McKinney had no doubts about the reason why. His black congregants were leaving southeastern San Diego for the new suburban housing tracts of Hemet or Temecula in southwest Riverside County. Latinos were taking their place.
He had to take action.
“If we don’t reach out to people who arrive here, a lot of local congregations will be dying,” McKinney said. “I don’t care if you pray to the Lord in Spanish, English, or Ebonics.”
Six years ago, he met Chavez through another pastor. Chavez lived in San Ysidro, and was preaching in Tijuana at the time. McKinney asked him to start a Spanish-speaking congregation at his church. After deliberating with his family and with God, Chavez accepted.
McKinney handed him the keys to the whole church campus, rent-free. His congregation was small at first, just a few people. But as word got out about the Spanish-speaking church in Valencia Park (aided by some friendly but aggressive street-level evangelizing), it began to grow.
Today, between 60 and 80 people show up to two weeknight services held in either the trailer or in the church sanctuary, and on Sundays, 200 people fill the pews. The bishop now charges Chavez $1,200 in monthly rent.
The Spanish-speaking congregation that meets at St. Stephen’s is growing fast, while Bishop McKinney and his son, Pastor George A. McKinney, struggle to recover some of the members they’ve lost. They have strategized with Chavez on how their two congregations might merge.
They believe that may ultimately be necessary if their church is to remain relevant to the neighborhood it serves. “The new church we see coming into fruition is not going to look exactly like we look,” the younger McKinney said. “‘By any means necessary’ is the underlying issue.”
They’re thinking about buying translation equipment that would allow Spanish-speaking worshippers to attend the English services — to have blacks and Latinos sitting in the pews together.
In the meantime, Chavez has become active with the growing community of Latino pastors that work in southeastern San Diego. He is vice president of the Reunion de Pastores, a coalition of Spanish speaking pastors roughly 100 strong and growing. It is trying to unite southeastern San Diego’s Latino community, much like black pastors did a half century ago to coalesce their own community’s political influence. Latino church pastors could become new gatekeepers for southeastern San Diego’s growing majority.
And Bishop McKinney does not want to be left out. On the side of his church facing Imperial Avenue, he’s unfurled a banner with a simple but telling announcement: Spanish Services Available Sundays, 2 o’clock.
— Keegan Kyle contributed to this report.
Correction: The caption in this story incorrectly stated that the neighborhood of Valencia Park had become majority Latino. Latinos and blacks both make up 44 percent of the population in the neighborhood. We regret the error.