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‘We’re close,’ Historic Madison Black church makes final push to pay off mortgage

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Sunday brought another pair of drive-up and virtual services at Mount Zion Baptist Church. This Sunday also included church leaders launching a fundraising effort to pay off the church's remaining debt.

"It'll be amazing for us to say 'that's our property, that's ours, it belongs to us," said Rev. Marcus Allen, the church's pastor. "That we paid off the debt, that we accomplished that goal."

Currently, a little more than 10 percent of Black families in Dane County own their own homes. It's one of the worst rates in a state that ranks among the nation's worst for Black home ownership.

"There is an issue with generational wealth that is non-existent in the Black community," Vanessa McDowell said. "And I know wealth comes from ownership."

Monday through Friday, McDowell is the CEO of YWCA Madison. On Sundays, she plays bass guitar at Mt. Zion, the south side church she said she has attended her entire life.

"Mt. Zion has a history of service to this community, over 100 years," McDowell said. "And we've never owned our building."

The church, which opened in 1911, has rested on the same Fisher Street footprint since 1960. A massive 2004 expansion built a new worship area and placed a steeple atop the structure. The expansion project cost $3 million; Allen said the church raised $1 million at the time while another donor provided another $1 million. For the past 16 years, the church has been paying off that remaining $1 million.

"Every shift that we've made, we've gotten to this place where we always are owing and never owning," McDowell said.

Allen said the church is closing in on paying off the remaining $150,000 of that mortgage. Without any payments to the bank, Allen said the church can then turn its focus to the next goal: tearing down the original 1960 structure and rebuilding a community center on the property.

"Our food pantry, our after-school program, our benevolence in which we help people with housing and food," Allen said.

Meeting Needs Now

As the church works to pay off its remaining debt on the building, Allen said the church has an immediate role to play in issues disrupting lives in the neighborhood. Allen said he's looking for ways to provide programming for teenagers, both those who've run afoul of the law and those who could use a larger platform for their good deeds.

"There's not a lot of things for our teenagers and so right now, we're developing programs to enhance the lives of teenagers in the city," Allen said. "We know a lot of teenagers are running around stealing cars but a lot of them are doing great work, a lot of them are doing great things and we want to enhance that."

Allen added the sermons in July will focus on another immediate issue -- mental health awareness.

"I'm big on mental health for our community because it's a stigma that people say 'hey I don't need a therapist, I don't want to see a doctor,'" he said.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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