Elegant and enormous, Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church dominates fashionable H Street in Washington, DC. The building appears busy: Families come and go for preschool, and two services are held on Sundays.

But the banner out front hints at a complicated truth: “Two Churches, One Mission.” The Romanesque-style church, home to a robust black congregation for more than half a century, has faced steep membership declines in recent years.

In an effort to survive, the church has joined forces with a new one composed largely of young white residents—which already outstrips their group in size.

The changes at Douglas Memorial echo those happening all over the capital, and in many pockets of the country. Cities are transforming as young, educated whites flock to urban areas, including low-income neighborhoods.

At the same time, in a trend some are calling “black flight,” African Americans are leaving cities in record numbers. Middle-class black families are cashing in on skyrocketing property values; others are renters forced to seek lower housing prices outside city limits.

According to a 2015 analysis by Governing magazine, over half of DC’s eligible census tracts have gentrified since 2000. Over the same period, the city’s black population dropped from 60 percent to less than 50 percent, while its white population rose from 30 percent to more than 40 percent.

In some cases, blacks leaving for the suburbs will drive back to the city for church on Sundays. Parking spaces are increasingly scarce, leading to a recent clash between the churches and their new neighbors. When the city proposed a bike lane that would’ve reduced parking near several large black churches, supporters on either ...

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