What makes a church a sacred place? Is it the physical four walls? A collective purpose? A space for spiritual gathering, respite, togetherness, healing?
These questions were pressing for a group of neighbors in the Walnut Neighborhood, adjacent to downtown Waterloo, as they watched the continued deterioration of the beloved Faith Temple/Walnut Street Baptist Church.
The needs of the community were no less than when the current structure was built in 1908. Its Baptist congregation, one of the largest in Iowa, moved to a new structure in 1971 and the building was sold to Faith Temple Baptist Church. In 2000, the church was listed in the National Register of Historic Places and in 2010, it held its last service.
And there it sat, watching over the community in its little triangular lot. In 2016, the community decided to do something about it.
The Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity purchased the historic church, on behalf of the Walnut Neighborhood Development Coalition. Planning has since been underway on how to properly restore its iconic architecture and utilize the space mindfully by the neighborhood and surrounding communities, thanks to the guidance of key members from the coalition and the University of Northern Iowa.
Drew Conrad, ‘93, Karla Organist and the team at UNI’s Institute for Decision Making (IDM) have been integral to the process. Thanks to their oversight, alongside funding from the Office of the Provost, the coalition was able to hire a community consultant with strong ties to Waterloo. Matthew Gilbert will now lead the charge of gathering input from Waterloo residents, with help from local organizers like Laura Hoy, from the Walnut Neighborhood Association; Ali Parrish, ‘20, from the Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity; and Sharina Sallis, corporate social responsibility manager from CUNA Mutual Group (among many others).
Gilbert commented that the coalition, which meets regularly at the graciously accommodating Boys and Girls Club of the Cedar Valley, “has blossomed into something really beautiful.”
Several UNI professors have also been involved in the process. As coordinator of UNI’s interior design program, Gowri Betrabet Gulwadi is enthusiastic about the possibilities of the beautiful space and potential for future projects and participation.
With the help of local architects, who were able to supply the church’s original plans, her students have
been working towards creating a 3D model to help conceptualize the revitalization.
From top left to bottom left: Gowri Betrabet Gulwadi, Gary Gute, Sharina Sallis, Laura Hoy, Karla Organist, Angela Waseskuk, Matthew Gilbert, Shuaib Meacham and Drew Conrad
The possibilities for student participation and programming support has only grown from there. “It’s such a big part of our students’ learning experiences,” said Gary Gute, ‘83, director of the UNIFlowLab. “To learn about the history and culture and community right where they’re learning it? This is our role as educators; to help co-create with students lived experiences where they can learn and grow.”
The students within Associate Professor of Literacy Shuaib Meacham’s class have learned this all too well. As part of their fall 2021 semester curriculum, they interviewed various members of the Waterloo community to discuss their outreach initiatives and hopes for the church project. The students were particularly inspired by African American researcher and historian Charles Pearson.
“There is a rich history in the Cedar Valley, even on this campus, that’s not well documented,” commented one student. “As future educators, we want to help tell our students about the history of their own community.”
And faculty are learning right alongside. Associate Professor of Public Health Disa Cornish was asked to be a part of the committee, and quickly realized the importance of the work, “I have an incredible privilege to sit back and listen and learn. Education doesn’t stop at the classroom door.”
In addition to these lessons being learned across the UNI campus, Gilbert and team reiterate that the main focus of the project has and will always tie back to the community. “We are in the phase of outreach where we need the hard truth about what’s going on with this building and what does the community want,” said Gilbert. “So we’re asking, ‘Hey, what do you want to see in the building? What would you dream of if you could have a building in Waterloo that had everything on your wishlist? What would that look like?’”
“This is our role as educators; to help co-create with students lived experiences where they can learn and grow.”
- GARY GUTE
Much of the feedback they’ve heard thus far has centered around the idea of youth programming, so they’ve been eagerly connecting with Waterloo youth through outreach to schools and community events like National Night Out, a Fall Light Show and a recent Community Brunch. Instead of handing out surveys, the group has engaged youth through artistic activities that help highlight their impressions of what the church should be utilized for or represent.
Gilbert is quick to point out, however, that they’re still keeping all options open. With this, they’ve also been in touch with business-minded organizations like the Cedar Valley Black Business & Entrepreneurship Accelerator, historical preservation groups like Waterloo Preservation Commission and passionate locals like Pearson.
“We looked at the church as a key point to get the Black experience,” said Pearson, who hopes the church can be a launchpoint for a future Iowa African American Heritage Trail.
There is a rich history to the church itself, of course, but also the land it sits on, particularly for the Black community. Just two years after the church was built, in 1910, a significant number of Black railroad workers were brought in as strikebreakers to the Waterloo area, and relegated to 20 square blocks in Waterloo, an area that includes the land the church sits on.
The years after were fraught with ongoing problems in housing, education, employment and systemtic racism.
In 1966, Waterloo was subject to protests over race relations between the white and Black communities. Despite being a northern city, Waterloo was unofficially segregated at the time, as 95% of its Black population lived in North Waterloo.
This history is still fresh in the minds of many of Waterloo’s Northside residents, particularly since the issues are still very real today. In 2018, the Cedar Falls-Waterloo area was named by a 24/7 Wall Street report to be the worst place in America for Blacks to live.
These findings and others are what continues to drive the church coalition to be strong ambassadors and advocates for the community. “It really has to be more relationship building,” remarked Gilbert. “People have to start to really build that sense of trust.”
And so, the coalition continues to plan and strategize, alongside the community, on what the Faith Temple/Walnut Street Baptist Church can grow to be. A symbol of hope, a catalyst for change and a place of togetherness. A beacon of light that — with a lot of hard work, listening and understanding — can provide hope and faith for a better, stronger future. UNI
Photos by Avanti Gulwadi and Sean O'Neal