Urban blacks have been following the pattern of so-called "white flight" for the past several decades, leaving the city for the suburbs as they reach the middle class. Now their churches are beginning to follow, church leaders and observers say.

"Traditionally, African Americans were driving back to the home church in the central city," said Michael Emerson, founding director of the Center on Race, Religion, and Urban Life at Rice University. "But as you get into the second generation, they don't want to drive back to where they aren't from. That trend is only going to continue as you leave poverty behind."

Suburban churches are also attractive because they have a more contemporary model of worship, often including ministries such as after-school programs for children, according to Derrick Harkins, pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

But when churches leave, they take with them a lot of services, funds, and charity work, said Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion and Africana studies at Vassar College. "Black churches," he said, "have been the major institution in the black communities—the only stable institution to have emerged from slavery."

The void that is left is enormous, said DeShawn Wilkins, pastor of a small African American church in Detroit. "I hear despair," he said. "A lot more people are looking at the church and saying, 'You guys talk it real good, but you do nothing.'?"

There are no signs of soup kitchens and no joint partnerships between the church and local police departments or community groups, said Wilkins, who has seen half a dozen churches boarded up in his neighborhood in recent years. Buildings are stripped of valuables and inhabited by squatters.

City centers are left ...

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