Every Sunday at the 11 a.m. service of West End Church of God in Christ (WEC), the women of the church wear white gloves and hats, which complement their all-white, head-to-toe habits. The men dress in scrupulous suits.
WEC Pastor Jesse Denny Jr. stands shrouded in a black pulpit robe. He grips the Bible in his left hand and a microphone in his right as the church’s 15 congregants rise from the first two rows of aged wooden pews.
Love breeds fertility and growth in God, he tells them.
“Yes! That’s right! Come on pastor,” several sisters holler, clapping. “Amen! Amen!”
Poverty, homelessness, crime and other struggles surround WEC, which has served as a spiritual home in the spine of the West Side. The 100-year-old church is positioned on the corner of Poplar and Zarzamora streets—walking distance from the No. 89, 289 and 520 bus routes, the Lincoln Heights Courts, Zarzamora Street Boxing Gym and West End Park.
The older congregation’s attendance is at its lowest point in recent memory—just 15 members on this Sunday—but the soul of the church remains potent.
Voices singing along to the church band. Hands reaching for the sky. Feet crashing into ground. These are expressions of hope.
“We just go with the flow of the Lord. We would like for a lot people to attend this church, but we that are here keep the spirit of the Lord moving,” said Benilda Brown, sister of the church and WEC member since 1996. “Regardless, if people come or not we will be here.”
The congregation drives in from all over the city.
“It’s been a steady decline over the years because the older contemporaries have passed away and the young professionals have moved out of town,” Denny Jr. said. “We’ve had a pretty mixed congregation in the past … but I feel like the decline is more so about the economic circumstances of the community than per se a racial thing.”
Denny Jr., 50, has pastored at WEC for the last seven years—a dream of his since he was 13 years old.
His first opportunity as pastor came when his father, Jesse Sr., was in the hospital.
“While my father was on his sick bed … our bishop, who was appointed to the church, visited my dad,” Denny Jr. said. “My dad said to the bishop, ‘Your dad gave me the privilege and honor to pastor WEC and I would like for you to extend the same privilege to my son.’”
In 1982, Denny Jr. arrived in San Antonio from San Diego at 15. He has been a WEC member since. Several congregants have witnessed his growth from young churchgoer to pastor.
“He’s been a good preacher,” said Bonnie Ross, 88, a WEC member since 1953. “He preaches God’s word and he’s a good inspiration. He loves God, he loves the church and he loves the people.”
Ross and fellow congregants were apart of the church’s heyday, which consisted of an overcrowded congregation with a sea of young members and their families.
“There was a great difference back in the day—we had a lot more members,” Ross said. “There were a lot of younger people, a full church. We had a nice choir, and a lot of souls got saved.”
Nowadays, homeless people or anyone within earshot of the church will occasionally stroll into the sacred house. Nevertheless, it’s rare that a commitment is made to WEC. Denny Jr. talked about the church’s detached relationship with the community.
“One of the things we struggle with is to be relevant to the community,” said Denny Jr. “We know as a church we need to be careful that the programs, the events, our calendar does not eliminate the needs of the community, but (that) they reflect the needs of the community.”
For 100 years, WEC has kept its doors open for people of all backgrounds: homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes and anyone searching for a spiritual home.
“The church is open for everybody, it doesn’t matter no color, no nationality or anything like that,” Brown said.
Denny Jr. echoed her.
“I don’t care how they look … they can come in a three-piece suit or they can have tattoos and earrings. It’s about the soul,” the pastor said. “I want everyone to know when they come here, they feel comfortable being here regardless of background.”
Despite the challenges, the congregation feels that sounds of tambourines and hands colliding every Sunday are signs of greater things to come—especially if the church grows younger.
“I think it is important to have young people at the church,” Juliet Steed,82, WEC member since 1967 said. “Because the younger people will carry on after the older ones are gone.”
Denny Jr. yearns to connect better with millennials through more modern sermons and by networking with college ministries.
“I just pray that God sends young professionals with a higher calling to be a contributor, a collaborator to the church,” Denny Jr. said.
Recently, Denny Jr. used a social media meme called “the starter pack” to articulate his word at the sermon. The meme consists of four photos describing a type of person or group of people.
“What comes with the dream? Dungeons, detours and delays,” Denny Jr. said. “This is your starter pack as a dreamer: persistence, focus, proper priorities and prayer.”
The analogy was grasped by the minorities of the church, young people.
Whether the attendance at WEC is large or small, the energy remains vigorous.
At the conclusion of the sermon Ross said with a smile, “We are low in people but we are not low in spirit.”