In a depressed economy, Kentucky’s largest black church continues to prosper and grow in west Louisville

St. Stephen Baptist Church — Kentucky’s largest African-American congregation — plans to build a new $13 million, 3,400-seat sanctuary by mid-2010. Scheduled to break ground next year, the project is yet another entrepreneurial triumph of the Rev. Kevin Cosby, pastor at St. Stephen for almost 30 years.

Once called “master pastor” in inner circles of black clergy, Cosby sits at the head of the table of black megachurches in Kentucky, leading a 14,000-member congregation, which, like it or not, may be the only consistent economic developer in Louisville’s African-American community.

“We have deep roots and longevity in the California neighborhood,” Cosby tells LEO Weekly. “There’s a commitment to anchor it with institutions that enhance the quality of life.” 

For years Cosby has had the best and worst of both worlds. Praised openly as a visionary whose church has invested more than $25 million in the city, he also has been bruised by criticism that the megachurch was self-serving, that it sold its social justice message for faith-based initiatives, and that he was personally benefiting financially. 

But Cosby emphasizes that this project is a grassroots effort, with monetary pledges from members starting in 2009: “It is not someone parachuting outside the community, but a grassroots effort.”

According to ReligionLink.com — an online resource on religion and churches — there are at least 65 black megachurches nationwide that average a Sunday attendance of 2,000 or more. 

Tamelyn Tucker-Worgs, an associate professor of political science at Hood College in Frederick, Md., has researched the rise of the black megachurch. She says the phenomenon parallels the growth of the new black middle class, particularly suburbanites in urban metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. 

“We’ve had large black churches in the past,” Tucker-Worgs says. “These churches that have developed recently, however, have a ‘this worldly’ philosophy focusing on economic development of their members, home ownership and an affiliated community development corporation.”

Historically, African-American churches have emphasized social justice issues as integral to their mission. The danger is that major development investments might jeopardize other forms of political engagement, Tucker-Worgs says.

Many black leaders have criticized black megachurches for emphasizing what popular ministers have called a “prosperity gospel,” a doctrine that says material and financial success is external evidence of God’s favor.

As more African-Americans shift from political protest to economic empowerment and more settle into a plush middle-class lifestyle, the ministerial leadership is beginning to reflect that change as well. But Tucker-Worgs says it is wrong to paint black megachurches with a broad brush.

And while Cosby has never publicly embraced the prosperity gospel, its message is reflected in his sermons. For example, he says prosperity can be confused with greed, but it has nothing to do with money. Instead, he bounds his theological philosophy to three principles: personal transformation, social justice and group empowerment.

“Prosperity is good nutrition, healthy relationships, voter registration and safe communities,” he says. “The word needs a remix.”

Most importantly, Cosby says it is a misconception to think church facilities are closed to others: “St. Stephen is open to the entire community. You don’t have to belong to St. Stephen for it to belong to you.”

But not everyone living in California — one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods — believes the wealth of St. Stephen is trickling down to the community.

“How does it help?” asks Michael Brooks, president of the California Neighborhood Coalitions, during a brief telephone interview. “I don’t see where it’s benefiting the community.”

For all the qualms about the prosperity gospel, one cannot deny St. Stephen has been a consistent lone bulwark of development in west Louisville. In addition to a new multi-million dollar sanctuary, the church already has a 1,200-seat satellite campus in southern Indiana and several multipurpose facilities, including a family life center, sit-down restaurant, indoor gymnasium, drug addiction ministry, food and clothing distribution unit, and career academy.

Like everything else in America, it seems many saintly institutions have transformed from one-room barns to Fortune 500 companies with stadium-sized facilities. 

“Much like Wal-Mart, when they come to town a whole lot of other things can come,” says Metro Councilman George Unseld, D-6, whose district is home to St. Stephen. “I’m hoping with what St. Stephen has done, it can have that Wal-Mart affect.”

There is no other development in west Louisville comparable to the scale of St. Stephen’s projects, Unseld says. Because its membership comes from across the entire city, he says, the church is always growing and expanding. For the California neighborhood specifically, Unseld believes that presents an opportunity to spur other commercial activities and development that could have booming results in the district. 

“Anytime you occupy vacant land that is unkempt and you put a structure there with a positive program, I think that benefits the area,” he says.