Hardy souls

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In those famous first six days, God made a lot of important things, but there is not a word in Genesis about him creating storefront churches. Yet here they are, brightening otherwise bleak stretches of the city and some suburbs, areas that are often referred to-by cops, residents, activists, developers and reformers-as Godforsaken.

A few years ago I was in the Austin neighborhood on the Far West Side, only blocks from the full trees and fine homes of Oak Park, once known as the place "where the bars end and the churches begin."I was staring at the seven storefronts that lined one side of the 5800 block of West Division Street. Four of them were empty, but the others were places of worship: the True Love Mission, the One Way Church of God in Christ and the Christian Progressive Achievement Center. Across the street was the One Church in Christ Baptist and one block over was the Holy Trinity Church of God in Christ, with a sign in the window that read, "A Church With a Message for This Mess-Age."

A man named Robert Taymore walked up to me and asked me what I was doing.

I told him I was interested in the churches and I asked him, "What do you think it means, 'Mess-Age?' "

"What do I think that means? What do you think that means?" he said, almost angrily. "Just look around, man. Look at this neighborhood. There are a lot of messed-up lives around here."

True enough. But also true is that amid these messed-up lives and messed-up neighborhoods you will find hundreds of churches and other places of worship settled into buildings that once were stores, abandoned for lack of business; fast-food joints, gas stations, warehouses, old movie theaters. Those attending these churches are usually members of Baptist, Holiness or Pentecostal denominations. Most congregations are African-American, though a growing number are Hispanic and the area is dotted with storefront mosques and temples.

These are not at all like the places where most people attend religious services, but it would be wrong to consider storefront churches something less than real churches simply because they lack architectural majesty, pipe organs, large congregations or stained-glass representation of saints.

Storefront churches are typically short-lived for two main reasons. Occasionally they are able to organize and grow a congregation, raise funds and build a permanent home somewhere else. More likely, the churches will fall prey to economics.

"We are almost like a nomadic tribe," says the minister of a storefront church on the Far South Side who requested anonymity ("because I'm not interested in getting any attention"). "My church has already, in the last seven years, been forced to move twice when the neighborhoods started to turn around for the better and the landlords could get more in rent money. But we have always found a new place to worship and always will."

The churches often announce themselves with colorful and artful facades and sometimes with equally colorful names: The Holy Raiders Revival Church, once located in a former movie theater on West Madison Street, is featured in a recently published book entitled "How the Other Half Worships." The book was born in the 1970s when Camilo Jose Vergara began to examine what he calls "the built environment of poor, minority communities" in more than 20 U.S. cities, including Chicago.

A New York-based sociologist and photographer, Vergara soon found that these churches "were such a prevalent feature of the urban landscape" that they became the primary focus of his work.

Storefront churches are difficult to study, in large part because many of those running the churches have no theological training. They are started by unordained ministers and operate independent of any particular denomination.

Some of those ministers bridle at the term "storefront." As Vergara writes: "Pastors of storefront churches are aware of the disdain that people have for their institutions, but they argue that every house of worship is unique. They deny that they are holding services in a former store, and refuse to be lumped together under a term that makes them sound second-rate."

In the book he quotes a Detroit sculptor named Michael D. Hall: "By transforming any type of ghetto building into a church, today's preachers are affirming the primary Christian experience in the most oppressive circumstances. Creating these havens in the midst of ruins is comparable to the early Christians creating churches in the catacombs . . ."

Vergara is not the only photographer whose lens has been attracted to this urban phenomenon. Elizabeth Johnson, the photographer/author of 1999's "Chicago Churches: A Photographic Essay," was originally perplexed by storefront churches but soon realized that it didn't matter what the church looked like.

"A church could be anywhere and look like anything. It wasn't so much about the buildings, but the collective spirit of the people gathering within them. Our churches are reflections of us: glorious or grand, quaint or humble. And it is the common thread of spirit, goodness and faith that unites our city."

And now on these pages, Tribune photographer Bill Hogan gets his say, in photos and in these words: "I discovered pretty quickly that these churches appeared only in certain well-defined locations. Look for a major street running through an oppressively poor neighborhood in a large urban environment and you'll find one, if not two or three, in every block.

"With their bright paint and hand-lettered messages of redemption, they reminded me of the occasional cars one sees on the roadway festooned with bumper stickers, declaring the political, sexual or dietary beliefs of the vehicle's driver. You can't stop yourself from reading the messages as you go by and, I suppose, that's the point."

The history of storefront churches stretches back nearly 100 years, says Omar McRoberts, an associate professor in the sociology department at the University of Chicago and author of "On Streets of Glory," a revealing examination of the relationship between the black religious experience and urban poverty in one area of Boston known as Four Corners.

"I trace this phenomenon back to the waves of black migration that reached Northern cities in the first half of the 20th Century," says McRoberts, a native of St. Louis who lives in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

"You had overcrowded black neighborhoods in urban areas, and the religious life reflected that diversity. In those neighborhoods there was class segregation-not every migrant from the South felt comfortable in the middle-class churches in the North. They found the style of service more restrained than what they were accustomed to. So, these storefront churches began as enclaves for different types of black people and their preferences for different flavors and styles of worship."

It is easy, he says, for the casual observer to think that the churches are a reflection of religious fervor in the neighborhoods in which they sit, "but many of these churches and their congregates have little or no relationship to their geographical location. If a church distinguishes itself demographically and culturally, people will commute from other parts of the city, and even further, to attend if that's where they feel at home."

Old St. Patrick's Church is to storefront churches what Wrigley Field is to sandlot baseball diamonds. It was founded in 1841, the first English-speaking parish in the city, and its first permanent home was a wooden frame building constructed five years later at Randolph Street and Des Plaines Avenue.

The church, now at the corner of Adams Street and Des Plaines, was dedicated on Christmas Day in 1856 and is one of only a handful of structures to have survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

In 1964, the church became the first Chicago building officially designated a landmark by the Chicago City Council and, since 1977, it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

John Cusick is a priest at Old St. Pat's, director of the Young Adult Ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago and a keen observer of the city.

"All you have to do is look and there are signs of neighborhood religion all over," he says. "These storefront churches are obviously fulfilling a need. They are started because someone felt called upon to do something for the community."

Each storefront church creates, of course, its own community, serving people in similar economic circumstances and creating a sense of family.

"They are serving in many ways," says McRoberts. "They emphasize the role of the whole membership in congregational activities and worship. In this way, many of the storefront churches are important support networks and social-service agencies, quietly serving members without extroverted activism."

Some Sundays after his work at Old St. Pat's is done, Cusick will park his car near one of the city's storefront churches. "I watch as services let out and I see something other people need to see.

"I see people dressed to the nines, in hats and dresses, suits and ties. Many of these people spend their week getting pushed around, scratching out a life, having people stare right through them.

"But here they are, walking out of these little churches looking like a million bucks, in essence saying: 'We are more than we might seem. We are the sons and daughters of God.' "

Now, how's that for a message?

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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