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Storefront churches on Division St. in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood.

Storefront churches on Division St. in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood.

Nestled between barbershops and vacant buildings, storefront churches are Chicago fixtures

Drive down Division St. in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, and you’ll pass storefront after storefront with names like “Christ Resurrection Missionary Baptist Church” and “Old Rugged Cross Missionary Baptist Church.”

Storefront churches are defined by their location: They’re houses of worship tucked into strip malls or street-facing buildings that might otherwise serve commercial purposes. These churches are often sandwiched between all sorts of spaces, including barbershops, chicken-and-fish eateries and vacant properties.

This style of church became popular in Chicago in the early 20th century, when African Americans moved to the city to escape the Jim Crow South during the first wave of the Great Migration.

Today, you can still find storefront churches all over the city. But they’re particularly prevalent on the South and West Sides, in neighborhoods like Austin.

Storefront churches are generally closed most of the week, sometimes appearing abandoned. But for some residents, these churches are a lifeline. They can also offer opportunities to pastors without formal theological training to lead a church. When a Curious City listener asked what impact these churches have on communities they’re prevalent in, we talked to Austin pastors, business owners and residents to find out.

A new kind of house of worship

Starting in the 1910s, hundreds of thousands of African Americans came to northern cities like Chicago from the South. They set out to put down roots and get connected with local churches.

But while the established Black churches in the city tended to be Baptist or Methodist, many of the newcomers were Pentecostal or members of the Church of God in Christ.

 So they wanted to establish new spiritual homes that aligned with their beliefs and style of worship.

However, in response to the influx of Black people from the South, mortgage lenders and politicians enacted racist policies that only allowed Black Chicagoans to live in particular parts of the city.

Because of redlining, Black people who wanted to create churches were also extremely limited in the buildings they could purchase or rent.

So vacant commercial spaces in disinvested areas became prime real estate for Christians looking to pray in community. These were often abandoned storefronts. Congregations were small and intimate, mainly comprised of family members and neighbors.

Nevertheless, these churches were a big deal. In 1930, storefront churches accounted for 72% of all churches started by African Americans in Chicago.

After redlining was outlawed and more properties became available to African American property owners, storefront churches were seen as a stepping stone to larger, stand-alone buildings. However, for some pastors and congregants, storefront churches remained perfectly legitimate — perhaps even preferable — places of worship.

‘This is where God wants us to be’

Reverend Charles Brown has lived in the Austin neighborhood his entire life. “I never thought I would be a pastor and still be on Division,” he said.

In the 1990s, Rev. Brown was preaching in his aunt’s basement. But he heard about a space on Division St., a former restaurant, that needed a tenant.

 “When we first came in, no one wanted this place,” he said. “Even the members were like, ‘No, we’re gonna look somewhere else.’ I said, ‘This is where God wants us to be.’”

At one point, the New Heaven Christian Church congregation was in danger of losing its home, when the landlord decided to sell the building. “One day, they came to me and said that no one would buy the building because the church is downstairs,” Rev. Brown recalled with a chuckle. “No one wanted to put the church out.”

Rev. Brown bought the building, and today he lives above the church. Twenty-five years after opening, he’s still convinced 5412 West Division St. is where God wants his congregation to be.

“A lot of pastors tend to be somewhat ashamed when they have a storefront church because it’s not big, or they can’t do this, or they don’t have the resources,” he said. “But I say that if we’re faithful where we are, then God is happy.”

In a highly unscientific survey, Curious City counted over 60 storefront churches in the Austin neighborhood on Google Maps. Depending on the size of the space and level of participation, congregations at these churches can range from 20 to a few hundred people. In Chicago, like many cities, these churches are prevalent in majority-Black neighborhoods, and more recently in Latino and Asian communities.

How many is too many?

Down the street from New Heaven Christian Church, clothing store employee Lee Israel wants to see some of these churches move on.

In the area surrounding J. Casualwear, where Israel sells hoodies, sweatpants and other loungewear, he’s seen more storefront churches come and go over the years than he can count on one hand.

“That was a church over there, this corner right here was a church,” he said. “You got a church on the corner, that’s three. You got another church three doors down from us, that’s four. The corner spot was a church, that’s five. They had the big church right here, that’s six.”

The proliferation of storefront churches on Division St. bothers Israel. He says it makes it hard for J. Casualwear to feel like part of a thriving business hub when so many buildings surrounding the store are closed most of the week.

“For six days out of the week, we look at this door, closed. It dries up the community,” he said. “It’s nothing generating wealth.”

Israel would love to see other types of businesses take over these spaces. “We don’t have a laundromat in the neighborhood. We don’t have an exercise gym in the neighborhood,” he said. “We don’t even have a lot of businesses in the neighborhood.”

City leaders recently made Austin a priority area for revitalization efforts to address these very concerns. And a few years ago, the Illinois legislature passed an amendment that made it easier for businesses that sell alcohol, like restaurants, to open near churches. But for Israel and other neighborhood business owners, it hasn’t been enough.

On the other hand, Dawn Guerrero, who volunteers at another storefront church on Division St., New Inspirational Missionary Baptist Church, says there’s no such thing as too many churches in one neighborhood.

“In this community, the pastor is the one that’s sitting there giving us the avenues,” she said. “Like, he knows where to reach out to, and how to help us get [what we need] without having to struggle.”

For Guerrero, the fact that storefront churches are physically embedded within their block, their neighborhood, makes it easier for the pastor and volunteers to connect with people who may need support.

Similarly, Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago says when many storefront churches closed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, neighborhoods lost out on essential services. “We lose food pantries, we lose counseling services, we lose childcare services, we lose community dinners, we lose celebrations,” Miller said. “And we lose a network of friends and family that come together.”

Other Austin residents are neutral on the presence of storefront churches. Deonte Harris, who works at H-D Visions Barber Shop, says churches are better than what he sees as likely alternatives.

“If they weren’t churches, it’d probably be liquor stores on every corner,” he said.

Miller agrees that with vacant properties taking up large swathes of the South and West Sides, storefront churches would not necessarily be replaced with businesses like laundromats or gyms if they left. Liquor stores — or even vacant buildings — might be more likely possibilities.

Harris’ main complaint is that he’d like to see more local congregation members patronize his barbershop to get their hair cut or styled before church.

“That’d be great,” Harris said. “For the neighborhood, and the [church] services.”

Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter and the morning host of The Rundown for WBEZ. Follow @adorakn.

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