The Rev. Terrence Griffith, pastor of the oldest black Baptist church in Pennsylvania, was sweating in the early-morning heat.

Alone in the cavernous sanctuary of First African Baptist Church, he lamented the lack of air-conditioning. Outside, a chain-link fence protected pedestrians from a church wall that he said could collapse at any moment.

The church, Griffith said, can no longer handle the burden of its 109-year-old building at 16th and Christian Streets.

"I'm not going to preside over the death of a church," he said. "I am unequivocal about that."

To survive, Griffith insists, the church must sell the building, where Booker T. Washington once spoke, for $3.2 million to a developer who wants to demolish it and build condos in a gentrifying neighborhood.

A hearing scheduled for Thursday could determine another battle in the city's ongoing dilemma of neighborhood change. City building inspectors have declared the property unsafe and said that if repairs are not made, they may ask a judge to order it demolished.

Griffith said the church, founded in 1809 by freed slaves from Virginia, would not fight that. In fact, that would set the stage for the contemplated sale.

"We have contributed significantly to the fabric of Philadelphia," said Griffith, president of Black Clergy of Philadelphia. "Our interest is the survival of First African Baptist Church, and not a building that, if we stay here, for the next 20 years we will be putting money into this building."

But some congregants and a cluster of organizations want to try to save the building.

Built in 1906, the two-story limestone structure has no historical protection. A local architectural historian has petitioned the Philadelphia Historical Commission to grant it that status, however, and a vote is expected next month. Opponents of the building's demolition hope that the pending vote will forestall any action on the planned sale.

In June, seven congregants filed an injunction against Griffith and the developer, seeking to avert a sale. They argue that the church cannot be demolished because in 2006, it accepted state grant money for building repairs in exchange for deed restrictions that preclude demolition until 2021.

Moreover, they say, the congregation did not authorize the planned sale of the church. Prudence Harvey, one of those congregants, questions Griffith's motives.

"The pastor of a Baptist church is supposed to go by the Baptist bylaws," Harvey said. "Pastors are hired servants. He is an employee. But he has been changing the rules. He wants to make it so he is the person totally in charge."

Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode, now a Baptist minister, who has worked to ensure the preservation of historic church and buildings throughout the city, is worried about First African Baptist.

"It would indeed be a shame," Goode said. "We all have to keep pushing as hard as we can to preserve these historic structures. Sometimes even friends disagree on that."

Griffith chides those who oppose his plan. Goode, he said, has not called him to voice discontent. He labeled the preservationists "crusaders coming out of the woodwork." And the disenchanted congregants, Griffith said, "really do not contribute significantly to the upkeep of this church."

The complete restoration of the building, using what Griffith said is a "roughshod estimate," would cost $5 million. He said he could not provide a written estimate. In addition to a crumbling wall on the 16th Street side, Griffith identified other structural issues and possible asbestos as concerns. But the impressive sanctuary appears in good shape.

Even if the church had the money to make repairs, Griffith said, "you still have the issue of demographics."

His congregation has shrunk, while housing prices in the Graduate Hospital area have exploded and pushed former residents elsewhere. The sanctuary can hold 1,000; the number of active members is fewer than 100.

A church relocation committee is exploring potential properties in West Philadelphia.

"We cannot stay," Griffith said. "The membership says we cannot stay."

Twelve years ago, Griffith, then new to the church, wrote a letter to then-Gov. Ed Rendell pleading for state assistance to preserve the building.

A state historical marker, installed outside the front doors in 1991, recounts how two members sold themselves into slavery so another slave could be freed to become pastor.

"Former members sacrificed and built this church from the ground up," Griffith wrote in 2003.

Part of the solution was the $75,000 grant in 2006 from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and Partners for Sacred Places, a group that raises money to preserve aging church buildings. To protect its investment, the Historical Commission required the church to sign an agreement that called for the church to be used for "demonstrable public benefit" until Dec. 1, 2021.

Griffith said he had offered to repay the state $75,000 to remove that requirement. The commission, in a letter sent in June, said it could not lift the restriction.

The pastor said he tried to have the building, designed by church architects Watson & Huckel, declared a historic landmark about 10 years ago. He said a state official told him that because the building had been altered - the bell tower was torn down in 1999 after a damage from a lightning strike and Hurricane Floyd - it did not qualify for such a designation.

In a letter to Griffith this summer, Serena Bellew, director of the state bureau for historic preservation, said no records showed that the church had sought historic status for the building.

"It is the opinion of the PHMC that First African Baptist Church has the potential to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places," Bellew wrote on June 30.

Without it, the building is vulnerable.

First African Baptist repaired two exterior walls with money from a capital campaign. The state grant helped. And Griffith sold two adjacent properties to developers for $525,000 in 2010. All of that money, he said, was spent on the building, and problems still persist.

"We've spent enough," Griffith said.

For now, the chain-link fence occupies part of the sidewalk on 16th Street. Overhead, the top of the church's wall leans. Branches poke from the damaged masonry.

John Crawford, a 27-year-old congregant, called the sale of the building a "wonderful opportunity" to move forward.

Moe Brooker, a painter and longtime congregant, said the struggle to maintain the building is enormous. The building, he said, has history. But the church itself is older.

"A larger number of people are more interested in the idea of the church and moving forward," said Brooker, 74. "For me, I'm sold."

Harvey is not. Earlier this week, she accompanied a structural engineer to the church for another opinion on its state of repair. As a church elder, she expected one of the deacons to let her in.

While she waited, Harvey knocked on neighbors' doors, trying to access a rooftop view for the engineer. No one was home.

Then a deacon called her cellphone. Harvey was not permitted inside the church.

mgelb@philly.com 215-854-2928 @MattGelb