For more than a year, Herbert Wilson had watched online Sunday morning services broadcast by The Park Church, located hundreds of miles and three states away from his home in Reading, Pennsylvania. On Aug. 13, 2023, he worshipped in person at the 2,500-member Charlotte, North Carolina, church for the first time. A week earlier, he had moved south and into Gilfield Park apartments, the new affordable senior living community owned by the church and built on its sprawling campus.
Following the service, Wilson stood in the long line of attendees waiting to shake hands and speak with Bishop Claude Alexander Jr. He was determined to meet and personally thank the senior pastor whom he credited for his dramatic change in fortune.
“I stayed in the lobby and in the background just waiting for my turn,” Wilson said. “I went up to him and said, ‘When God gave you this vision for Gilfield Park, he had me in mind.’ I told him I would share my testimony about what God has done for me with anybody.”
The 71-year-old Vietnam veteran has kept his promise to speak candidly about being delivered from the decadeslong struggle with substance abuse and PTSD that wrecked his personal relationships and left him unhoused for six years. He first heard about Gilfield Park after reconnecting with family members who lived in the Charlotte area and attended The Park.
“My niece emailed me about the development they were building that wasn’t even finished yet,” he said. “I put in an application and was chosen out of the lottery. And next thing you know, they say I can move in. I was being led by the Spirit, because God had it planned.”
Gilfield Park is the fulfillment of The Park Church’s decades of commitment to accommodate the congregation’s growing senior population amid the increasing shortage of high-quality affordable housing.
On a Sunday morning in September, Alexander gives the pulpit over to a visiting pastor and takes a seat in the sanctuary as the congregation gives him a celebratory send-off for a yearlong sabbatical. Alexander is recognized not only as the beloved and charismatic pastor of one of Charlotte’s most prominent Black churches but also as a leader of civic and social causes.
The Park operates several prayer, inreach and outreach ministries, working with a variety of area nonprofits to provide emergency assistance for people in need. Those include a produce farm and a mobile unit where people without adequate housing can shower and launder their clothes. The church also operates a global ministry and a variety of counseling and support services.
But affordable housing for seniors has long been the first and central tenet of the church’s vision.
“We recognized there was going to be this population shift, and we wanted to be able to provide something to address it,” said Alexander, who views shelter as central to human dignity.
“Housing is very much in the grid of our witness and our work,” he said. “We are an intergenerational congregation, and as I looked at our members, there are those for whom this is a desired outcome. It also gives us an opportunity to meet people we otherwise would not have met.”
In a society inundated with instantaneous responses, how is your organization committed to faithful, long term, sustainable impact?
A young, visionary leader
Alexander was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and raised there by parents who combined their faith and civil rights activism. They fostered his understanding of the church as a holistic institution, with no separation between one’s spiritual and secular life.
“My mother was the first Black psychiatrist in Mississippi, and my stepfather led the desegregation of the American Medical Association and was one of the founders of the Medical [Committee] for Human Rights,” he said.
After earning a master of divinity degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Alexander remained in the area to pastor the Morning Star Baptist Church, in an economically distressed community southeast of Pittsburgh. The experience both tested and prepared him for the next three decades as The Park’s senior pastor.
“That’s where I cut my teeth on what the church should be about,” he said. “The Black church started as and continues to be the one institution completely owned, led, directed by Black people. It is not just the place of religious instruction but of cultural and community survival.”
Alexander was perhaps the most unlikely candidate to become the senior pastor of the then 77-year-old congregation, falling well short of the church’s stated qualifications. Nonetheless, the selection committee believed he was the right person to lead the 600-member church.
“It took a lot of guts and faith to discard what they said that they wanted,” Alexander said. “They wanted somebody 35; I was 26. They wanted somebody married; I was single. They wanted someone with five years of pastoral experience, and I only had three and a half. They were willing to discard all of that because of what they felt God was leading them to do.”
Alexander credits that continuing spirit of open-mindedness for the growth and success the church has experienced under his leadership since his arrival in 1990. The church’s plans at that time included a new building and a combination residential, retail, office, hotel and convention space. The congregation moved into the avant-garde worship structure in 2001.
As the ministry continued to grow, they added a second worship location in south Charlotte in 2004; two years later, The Park became one of the few churches in the nation with a joint enterprise and ministry model, with the purchase of the Charlotte Merchandise Mart, the city’s second-largest event space.
From vision to reality
The senior living facility takes its name from the church’s 1913 founding, when a small, mostly female prayer group came together to establish Gilfield Missionary Baptist Church. The church has changed names several times during its 110-year history — Mt. Olive Baptist Church, Myers Park Baptist Church, University Park Baptist Church and ultimately The Park Church.
How does your vision make room for the pending shifts in your communities?
The plan to build affordable housing stalled repeatedly over a period of decades. The church struggled to find the right partners, the property wasn’t zoned for residential housing, and there was little support among local political leaders. At times, other, more feasible projects like securing additional worship space or expanding the global ministry took priority. But as a central tenet of the church’s mission, affordable housing for seniors remained a priority.
Alexander never lost faith in the church’s ability to make the vision a reality, primarily because the church had the most essential component for building affordable housing — the 54 acres of land it had purchased in northwest Charlotte’s historically Black community.
In a sermon preached days before the apartments’ grand opening, he took his text from Genesis 30, about Rachel’s wait to become a mother.
“It’s a long time between 1998 and 2023. Many have come and many have gone between the time of our purchasing the property, conceiving the vision of a senior residential facility and the actual delivery of that vision. And we come now to the point of it finally coming to pass. On Tuesday, we will celebrate the doors finally being open and people finally being housed.”
“With God, later is not late,” he preached at another point. “Later may take longer, but it is not late. Later than is not less than or lower than; it’s just later.”
What challenges has your vision encountered and how have you handled the challenges that have arisen?
When longtime member James Jackson retired from banking in 2017, he wanted to become more active in the church and asked Alexander how he could be of service. Alexander suggested he restart the affordable housing project that had lain dormant for years, a huge undertaking that was a perfect fit for both Jackson’s passion and his skill set.
The Savannah, Georgia, native had spent more than four decades working on development and housing. Having grown up in public housing, he cared deeply about providing affordable housing and addressing housing security.
“I’ve always admired efforts to create housing for people who struggle and have lesser means so that our brothers and sisters can have their own shelter and a place to call home,” Jackson said.
He established The Park Community Development Corporation (CDC) with the stated mission “to create sustainable change within marginalized communities by investing in solutions to affordable housing, healthy living, and economic mobility.”
What are visions that have been delayed but are still central to your organization’s tenets?
The city of Charlotte estimates that 35,000 affordable housing units are needed to meet current demand.
“This is a good example of the notion that it takes a village,” Jackson said. “Affordable housing is a growing problem throughout the Charlotte area and is too big to be solved by one person or entity.”
By the time Jackson took up the cause, the local political landscape had shifted significantly. Charlotte mayor Vi Lyles and the City Council demonstrated a commitment not only to build more affordable housing but also to eliminate homelessness throughout the city. Zoning regulations had also changed to permit multiunit housing on the land.
The CDC dusted off a white paper that the church had commissioned years earlier, created the building plan, applied for funding from a variety of sources and partnered with Laurel Street, a Black woman-led mixed-income developer, for the 5-acre project. The Park then joined forces with the Charlotte Housing Trust Fund, Bank of America and Local Initiatives Support Corporation Charlotte, the Charlotte arm of the nation’s largest community development organization, to make the long-envisioned project a reality.
In mid-December 2021, more than four years after The Park Church first announced plans for the complex, church and city leaders donned hard hats and masks for the Gilfield Park ceremonial groundbreaking. And like everything else, the plans were challenged by the labor shortage and skyrocketing materials costs caused by the coronavirus pandemic. While strictly commercial developments were able to pass the price increases on to buyers and tenants, Gilfield Park did not have that option if it was to remain true to its mission of affordability.
Initially slated for completion in early 2023 with $16.8 million of collaborative partner and church funding, the 80-unit complex opened for occupancy Aug. 8, 2023, and is already 94% full. Residents must be at least 55 with incomes ranging from 30% to 80% of the area’s median income, the midpoint of income distribution.
Visible from the front door of the church, the four-story brick-and-glass complex is located within blocks of restaurants, shops and parks. It includes high-end amenities like a fitness center, multipurpose community room and outdoor green space. The one- and two-bedroom units range from $400 to $1,200 monthly.
How could you engage your lay leaders' passions and skill sets to bring a long-held goal to fruition?
“As the city continues to show great leadership, the CDC, other religious institutions and so many nonprofits are all involved in making this part of their individual and collective mission,” Jackson said. “I don’t think there’s any silver bullet to solve it, but I believe we can get closer and closer to solving the problem.”
Wilson sees himself as proof of the success of that mission.
“I’m sitting here in the kitchen area of a beautiful, large one-bedroom, enjoying my place and freedom,” he said. “I am thrilled, happy, and so thankful and fortunate. Everything I desire has been given to me. You can’t mess with my joy!”
Questions to consider
- In a society inundated with instantaneous responses, how is your organization committed to faithful, long term, sustainable impact?
- How does your vision make room for the pending shifts in your communities?
- What challenges has your vision encountered and how have you handled those that have arisen?
- What are visions that have been delayed but are still central to your organization’s tenets?
- How could you engage your lay leaders' passions and skill sets to bring a long-held goal to fruition?