Yellow caution tape in front of the charred First AME Church building in Oakland
A February fire left the First African Methodist Episcopal Church sanctuary heavily damaged. Credit: Amir Aziz

Four months after the historic First African Methodist Episcopal Church went up in flames on a Sunday night in February, the church is moving to a new temporary home in Uptown Oakland, church leaders announced this week.

The relocation will be the church’s second since Feb. 19, when a fire damaged its building on Telegraph Avenue. Afterward, the First A.M.E. congregation was welcomed by Temple Beth Abraham, a synagogue on MacArthur Boulevard, where the church had since been holding its Sunday services.

“To have the synagogue open their doors for us immediately following the fire was a blessing,” said Rev. Amittia Bradley Smith, the church’s executive minister. “They were welcoming and anything that we thought we needed they were able to connect us with, from technology, to use of the facilities at all times. We are grateful.”

Starting this Sunday, June 11, the church will begin operating in the community space at Uptown Station, located at 1955 Broadway in Oakland. First constructed in the 1920s, it housed the H.C Capwell department store, and later Sears. The building almost became the headquarters for Uber, before the company put it up for sale in 2017

Today, Uptown Station has retail shops, work spaces, and the community space where First A.M.E. will hold services. Managed by Block, the technology company that operates Square and Cash App, the community space is free for certain nonprofits to rent out. 

First A.M.E. will hold Sunday services at Uptown Station for the rest of the year, Smith said. 

The original church building, which has been at its Telegraph location since 1958, is completely uninhabitable and will have to be demolished and rebuilt, she added. The church is still accepting donations through a GoFundMe campaign, but church leaders don’t have an estimate yet for how much it will cost to rebuild the sanctuary.

The congregation and its leaders are optimistic that rebuilding will offer the church an opportunity to expand its services to the community. First A.M.E. has had a tradition of providing weekly  meals to the homeless, and has continued to do so since the fire. 

“We’re going to use this as a stepping stone in terms of how we can help not only our congregation but also our community,” Smith said. 

Their ideas include having a shower facility for unhoused people, providing extra parking spaces for the surrounding neighborhood where parking is scarce, creating a place to exercise for those who may not be able to afford gym memberships, opening a cafe and work space, or even recreation areas for youth, Smith said. 

“The sky is the limit now that we have this opportunity to focus on building a new space,” she said. “We want to be the premier community service organization serving all people from all walks of life, regardless of denomination or economic standpoint, and regardless of ethnicity or race.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.