On a recent spring Sunday morning, people dressed in suits and colorful hats and fascinators make a joyful noise at Calahan Funeral Home on Chicago’s South Side.
“If you’re blessed right now and you know it, can you clap your hands?” an assistant pastor asks the congregation. People cheer and shout “Amen!” in response.
The Antioch Missionary Baptist Church congregation has been worshiping at Calahan on South Halsted Street ever since their church in the Englewood neighborhood was badly damaged by a fire on April 15.
Scott Pruitt, who was at the Sunday service, grew up at Antioch and still considers the now-scorched church to be his home.
“It’s an outside family. You have your blood family, that helps, but we have a church family,” Pruitt said. “Like he was in there talking about your church mothers, they pray for you. And they looking out for you and stuff like that. There’s always somebody behind the scenes looking out for you. That’s how I feel.”
The historic Black church on South Stewart Avenue is determined to rebuild on the same spot where it was gutted in an accidental fire two months ago. Antioch has been serving Englewood for decades, and plans to continue that work.
Eddie Johnson III runs Antioch Community Social Service Agency, the church’s neighborhood outreach arm. He said the church accomplishes this task in a variety of ways, including hosting town halls, graduation ceremonies, weddings and funerals – regardless of one’s ability to pay.
“Antioch Baptist Church is the one location the community can lean on … ” Johnson said. “The doors have always been open.”
He also said Antioch sponsors housing for more than 2,500 low-income residents and seniors in the neighborhood. Back in the 1960s, Antioch used Section 202 of the National Housing Act to create several complexes. At the time, it was the largest housing development by a church in the country.
“When you come across the expressway from 6300 South Stewart just about to Halsted, you see beautiful housing. You see green grass and people that are living,” Johnson said with a smile. “And believe it or not, they’re in the heart of Englewood, but they’re safe.”
John Ellis agrees with that assessment. He’s been living in church-sponsored housing for 20 years.
“The people and the reverend, they take good care of me in this building. Anything I might need, they try to help me,” Ellis said. “They have food drives, they have all types of things. And I don’t have no bad things to say about Antioch. Nothing.”
Ellis recalled how it felt watching Antioch go up in flames after a roofer’s propane torch ignited the fire.
“I cried like a little baby, it hurt so bad. But God is good. We gonna finna rebuild.”
Rebuilding will take time. Taking down the charred skeleton of a church is a slow, meticulous process. Construction crews can’t just take a wrecking ball to the structure – they must remove some sections of what’s left, brick by brick.
Deconstructing Antioch could take another month, but even that’s not for sure. Since there’s no telling when demolition will be complete, it’s hard to know when the new church can be built.
Plus, after it’s all torn down the church needs to fundraise to get that new building up. They don’t know how much money they’ll need.
But even with all the unknowns, there is one thing Pastor Gerald Dew and others are certain of.
“Our God is an on-time God,” Dew shouted from the pulpit on that spring Sunday, wiping sweat from his forehead with a white towel. “Anybody know he’s an on-time God?”
He told his congregation Antioch will be rebuilt when it’s supposed to be rebuilt. That’s because God’s timing is perfect – even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @adorakn.