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Storefront faith thrives as churches close down


If you live on the 28th floor of a Chicago condominium, it is easier to get an annulment than to dispose of a used refrigerator. Charities will come, but often only after noon in years Haley’s comet is in the sky and not above the third floor. The city won’t take it unless it’s in a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

However, in the condo across the street, there is a black maintenance man who looks a lot like Ichabod Crane. Call him, and he will be at your door in minutes with a jagged-toothed smile and a little rubber-wheeled dolly. He’s as wiry as a pipe cleaner, but he can throw a strap around the fridge and wedge it on the dolly as if the old icebox were cotton candy.

He’s a minister in a storefront church. Over the years, he has relieved our building of used tires, stoves, sewing machines, clothing, bicycles, fading TV sets, furniture, worn rugs and dozens of other items no longer deemed useful by the more affluent. In a remarkably short time, the rescued stuff will go out the back door of his little church and into the homes of his congregants and their friends. He is a one-man St. Vincent de Paul Society.

It’s likely that he is a self-ordained man of the cloth. That’s easier than one might think. In Chicago, for example, as long as one party to a marriage views you as a minister, you -- male or female -- can preside at a wedding.

His apostolate reminds one of the many tiny congregations that form part of the black belt that surrounds the segregated city. One can’t drive through the belt without passing dozens of old storefronts that have been converted into houses of worship for communities so small that they would fit on a bicycle. Taken together, they may form one of the largest social agencies in the city. In a way, they meet the needs of the highly structured agencies that often turn the poor away because they cannot distribute clothing that has not been dry-cleaned or reading glasses without a doctor’s prescription. Few thinking people would criticize the structured agencies, which do wonderful work. But, sadly, few things are colder than organized charity.

The storefronts that often distribute bags of food out the back door have the luxury of treating unequal things unequally. They thus achieve a measure of equality. Those who might be tempted to cheat the system would not likely do so for a bag of spotted bananas. Besides, these shepherds know their flock.

The modest churches remind one of those roadside shrines throughout Europe. The paint is peeling. The art is pure kitsch. The pews are folding chairs. But the hand-lettered names are capsules of faith and hope. “Fireball Faith Church,” “Bountiful Blessings Church,” “Refreshing Spring Church,” “Little Mountain of Hope,” “Monument of Faith Breakthrough Church,” “Birth of Love,” “House of Holiness,” “Church of the Widow’s Mite.” An endless litany of warmth, love and praise.

Some of these churches have grown beyond imagining. According to an article in Ebony magazine, Chicago’s Trinity United now has 8,000 parishioners, some of whom drive two hours to attend. The church’s $9 million budget suggests that members average over $1,000 each in annual contributions. (A priest pastor in an all-black parish contends that African-American Catholics are better givers than Caucasians.) The Christ Universal Temple, pastored by a woman, boasts 20,000 parishioners who come to their 32-acre complex within a sanctuary that seats 4,000. The Apostolic Church of God serves 16,000 with a medley of ministries that includes a prison ministry and a fine arts ministry that introduces members to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In part, the secret seems to be that members receive personal attention whether it be a rehabilitated refrigerator or a worship experience that resonates with their cultural and emotional roots.

Meanwhile, the Chicago archdiocese has recently announced the closing of four parishes, all in African-American neighborhoods. It would be a terrible mistake to suggest that the four old communities -- or the archdiocese -- hadn’t tried. However, the huge old buildings are tired and worn. One of the four now has only 84 members and debts of over $473,000.

Contrary to romantic perceptions, the grand old buildings weren’t built that well. Over the years, preventive maintenance became a luxury. Now, replacing the roof -- or just the boiler -- can cost more than the original church. Although the parish may have lots of land, most of it was classed as a single-use property. Developers wanted only the land and that at bargain basement rates.

As the parish demographics changed, collections dwindled. The neighborhood, once as high as 90 percent Catholic, changed to less than 10 percent.

The roots of the closing of these four churches lie in the inheritance that present pastors received from their predecessors. The pastor’s flock influenced him as much as he influenced the flock. The immigrant, lunch bucket Catholics fought for jobs at the bottom of the economic ladder together with migrant blacks. For decades, African-Americans were excluded from virtually all parish schools. In some churches, confession became its own penance since blacks were expected to go to the end of the line if a white person approached the box. Incredibly, even the cemeteries were segregated. The archdiocese was 105 years old before it ordained its first black priest and 139 years old before the first black auxiliary bishop was appointed.

Many pastors worked tirelessly to evangelize; but for some an appointment to a changing parish marked the end to their career paths. Their apostolates deteriorated together with the parish buildings. The result is that only about 4 percent of Chicago’s Catholics are African-Americans.

Could the church have done a better job? It surely could have, especially as one considers that it did very little until the early 1960s. Although rights groups such as the Catholic Interracial Council enjoyed most of their support from lay Catholics in Chicago, progress was terribly slow at the parish level. Far more typical was the treatment of Augustus Tolton, the first black priest in the United States, who came to Chicago with his small flock a few years after his ordination in 1886. He experienced severe racism, especially from his fellow priests. Following a stroke in 1897, he was refused admission to a Catholic hospital and died the same day. Still later, Cardinal George Mundelein, Chicago’s first cardinal, refused to rebuild a black church that had mysteriously burned to the ground. He pronounced: “The colored have enough churches.”

However, Mundelein was followed by others who were tireless in their efforts to serve -- men who marched in Selma (and outside chancery offices) and who served until the boilers wheezed their last.

It’s hard to know what will happen. Integration is improving with glacier-like speed. Some of the areas that were once white and are now black have been “regentrified,” leaving some African-Americans behind, and thus “integrating” the area. Some blacks have made it to the middle class and have moved to upscale neighborhoods.

There is a black woman who is a Communion minister in my parish. She lives in the next building. There is a black usher who takes a cab to Mass to help seat a modestly integrated congregation. And there is an integrated couple who never miss the 8 o’clock, and who bring up the gifts. They may be a glimpse of the future.

Please God, they have forgiven us and will join us at the table.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. Write him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002