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Residents of "Harlem" neighborhood devastated after arson destroys parts of historic church

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Posted at 6:42 PM, Sep 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-20 00:49:12-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Community members of the “Harlem” neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri, are devastated after an arson case destroyed much of their home church on Saturday morning.

The cornerstone church has been standing on Baltimore Avenue since 1907 as the center of social life for the congregation.

“This is the last original building from this community, and without it, I mean, there's not gonna be any part of its history left,” said Jason Withington, who grew up attending the church.

The history of this neighborhood dates all the way back to the first Dutch settlers. They called it “Harlem” because it reminded them of their city back home.

Only about 150 people still live in the area today, but there was a time when the neighborhood was home to over 1,000 residents, a school, a gas station, grocery stores and a post office.

“And then in 1951, the big flood came in and wiped out most of the remaining part of the community," Withington said. "The school moved and then Kansas City annexed it. Everybody moved away.”

What is left of their history has been preserved through stories told by church elders. Withington remembers the organist, Betty Lou Yingling, whose kids grew up with his father. Yingling passed away after being diagnosed with cancer in 2004.

“She made me promise her that I would keep sharing the history of Harlem and wouldn’t let people forget about it,” Withington said.

Yingling’s living son, Steven Yingling, says he is honored to have the legacy of the church and his mother’s memory preserved.

“We are all the product of our past, and our history is a foreshadowing of our future,” Steven said. “Betty Yingling was a pillar of the church with her dedication to serving God through music, Sunday school, and Bible school.

"Harlem church was the beacon of light to give hope to all who struggled to find peace. Her memory and the church will live in my heart forever.”

According to the Kansas City, Missouri, Fire Department, there has been about $90,000 in damage to the building. But Withington says the congregation, United Christian Fellowship, is determined to restore and preserve the original characteristics of the historic structure.

“I really, I started to cry,” Withington said. “It touched a lot of lives."