Salvation in the ghetto

PAUL KAIHLA March 2 1987

Salvation in the ghetto

PAUL KAIHLA March 2 1987

Salvation in the ghetto


The images of poverty are searing. Along the deserted thoroughfares of Chicago’s inner-city neighborhood of North Lawndale, twisted wrecks of cars lie rusting. A youth gang patrols its territory while a drug dealer exchanges a plastic packet of crack—a highly addictive form of cocaine—for a roll of bills in the alcove of an abandoned warehouse. Across the street, men in soiled clothes gather around an old oil drum containing burning tires, warming themselves and ignoring the acrid smell as they pass around a bottle of cheap liquor. It is a neighborhood of vacant lots, gutted buildings and liquor stores with steel gates guarding their fronts. There are also dozens of storefront churches, most of them Baptist, with names—Instant Salvation, New Rising Sun, Pleasant Valley—offering hope in the midst of desolation. “They are the only things that have stayed and in the past 10 years grown,” said Sondra Spellman, a 26-year resident of North Lawndale. “Anything else has long since died.” Baptist churches, with their mix of

soul-stirring gospel music and ritual, have always occupied a special position at the heart of the black community. As the economy soured and gang activity, drugs and violent crime grew like a cancer in North Lawndale and other U.S. urban ghettos during the 1970s, the number of Baptist churches setting

For some, storefront churches provide relief from personal tragedy and a buffer against the violence of ghetto life

up in storefronts increased dramatically—even as the mainstream churches lost their financial base and declined. Now, there are more than 70 storefront churches serving the 61,500 residents of the 4 VÏ -square-mile neighborhood on Chicago’s west side. Converted from abandoned shops by preachers who sometimes have to make up the

month’s rent out of their own pockets, some of the churches have congregations of no more than 20 people. But for some residents, such as Spellman, 27, a precinct captain for the Democratic party, storefront religion has provided relief from tragedy—and a buffer against the violence of ghetto life.

Like anyone growing up in North Lawndale, Spellman learned the harsh rules of survival at an early age. She witnessed her first murder at nine—a gang member killed in the hallway of her apartment house—then picked up coins that fell from the dead man’s pockets as he was dragged down a flight of stairs. As a child she attended church, but she stopped during her teen years, when she joined a local gang and regularly took part in its street battles. But in 1978 her mother suffered a stroke while attempting to break up a fight and died three days later. Shortly after, Spellman’s nephew was shot to death, and she left the gang and joined a storefront church. “I could not stand to see anyone get hurt anymore,” said Spellman, who is employed as a clerical worker in the Illinois state attorney’s office. “You need something stronger than yourself to believe in.”

In the disintegrating world of North Lawndale, people find solace where they can. Once a thriving Jewish community, the neighborhood is now 97-per-cent

black. Blacks who could afford to leave did so during the 1970s, and those who stayed have been sinking increasingly into grinding poverty—a phenomenon repeated throughout northern U.S. cities. There is only one bank and one supermarket. Besides the churches, 50 currency exchanges that offer quick chequecashing services, 48 lottery agents and 99 licensed bars and liquor stores occupy most of what remains of North Lawndale’s retail space. While the churches promise salvation, the businesses offer the chance to dream—and the chance to forget the numbing reality. The neighborhood’s unemployment rate is estimated to be as high as 58 per cent, compared with the national average of 6.7. More than half of its residents are on some form of public aid. About 30 people were murdered there last year—and the ghetto’s annual murder rate is close to 50 per 100,000 people, almost 29 times greater than that of Metropolitan Toronto.

Seven out of 10 births there are illegitimate, and one in three babies is born to a teenage mother.

Against that backdrop of welfare dependency, violence and disintegrat-

ing family structure, the storefront churches have assumed the role of surrogate family. “The church will adopt you,” said Spellman. For Chinetta Donaldson, 12, and Rochelle Webster,

14, membership in the New Rising Sun Missionary Baptist Church has provided a second home. Chinetta has not lived with her mother since her parents broke up nine years ago, and her 29-year-old father is away, living with his girlfriend. Rochelle’s father also lives elsewhere, and her mother is mentally handicapped and has been on welfare for much of her life. The girls are cared for by Martha Davis, 62, great-grandmother to Chinetta, grandmother to Rochelle—and a 10year member of New Rising Sun.

Like Chinetta and Rochelle, sisters Suenoria and Theresa Williams have also found some stability through storefront churches. Suenoria, 19, a single mother with two children by different men, said that her x church has helped her through some hard times—especially £ when her fiancé and father of her second child was stabbed to death last August. Theresa, 18, attends St. Timothy’s House of Prayer, a 25-member church converted from a burned-out building. “I go because the pastor is nice,” said Theresa, also a single mother with a two-year-old son. “It is like a family.” But their mother, Georgia, who supports four children and three grandchildren with her $19,950 factory worker’s salary, also attempted to tap the spiritual energy of storefront churches. She said that the experience was “depressing.”

The small churches offer spiritual nourishment to some of their parishioners, but they are ill-equipped to mount badly needed programs to deal with the colossal social ills of their community. Some still struggle to provide services and social cohesion. Last year Rev. Cleveland Whittington of the 200-member New Rising Sun began employing boys between the ages of 10 and 14 to make lamps. Whittington said that his aim was to show that an alternative existed to the gangs that often recruit young boys to sell narcotics on the streets. Whittington’s church is one of the more prosperous storefronts and was able to purchase its building in 1976 for $18,000. Still, 75 per cent of the congregation depends on welfare, and Whittington’s budget was so limited that he could only accommodate four youths in his program.

At the same time, the churches themselves have been the victims of the social disintegration that plagues North Lawndale. New Rising Sun’s storefront facade is no longer visible to the street: a series of break-ins forced Whittington

to erect a protective wooden barricade. But Whittington, 64, who worked as a building superintendent when he first started preaching in the early 1960s, refuses to abandon his parishioners for a better location outside the ghetto. “These people who have no jobs need to be somewhere—I want them.”

Because of their special appeal, the storefront churches have also become a

prized resource to politicians and law enforcement officials. William Henry, alderman for Chicago’s 24th ward— which encompasses most of North Lawndale—has enlisted the help of 50 storefront churches to register black voters for Mayor Harold Washington’s re-election campaign this year, the second election contest for Chicago’s first black mayor. And the Chicago Police

Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation have recruited the churches to help combat drug trafficking by offering counselling and reporting drug sources to the authorities.

But the churches have also come under fire—from local leaders who are seeking economic revitalization in the neighborhood. Brenda Adams, for one, Henry’s executive assistant, said that the storefront churches stand in the way of future development because they occupy space that could be converted into prime retail sites. Said Adams: “We need those storefronts for businesses that want to grow.” One of Henry’s goals is to try to attract business through new housing construction and physical improvements to North Lawndale. And the City of Chicago is working with private developers on a $6.5-million shopping-mall scheme intended to provide a town centre for North Lawndale.

But so far the plans remain on paper. And until investors become convinced that the community can reverse its fortunes, the daily ritual of welfare, alcohol, drugs and crime will go on— and North Lawndale’s residents will seek refuge in the churches that line their decaying streets. “We still need a place to go,” said Adams, “a place to say, ‘Lord, give me strength.’ ”

—PAUL KAIHLA in North Lawndale