Serving Tight-Knit Communities in Small Spaces

The commercial streets of Rogers Park and West Ridge, like those in many other Chicago neighborhoods, are dotted with dozens of religious congregations housed in small storefronts and other non-traditional locations. While we do not have an accurate count of the number of such congregations, a stroll down Clark Street, Western Avenue or almost any other busy business street will turn up a number of examples. In our 2018 Open Houses of Worship Weekend, four of the thirteen participating congregations were housed in storefronts, with another practicing its ministry inside a functioning residential hotel.

In Rogers Park/West Ridge, as in other Chicago neighborhoods, most storefronts serve Christian denominations, but some are home to other faiths. Most congregations are small communities of people who share similar ethnic origins seeking a comfortable, affordable place to worship in their unique way. Some congregations eventually grow beyond the storefront and move on to more conventional religious structures, some wither away as members leave the neighborhood, and some remain in place for many years, providing sacred space for a close family of worshipers who gain a social network, spiritual solace and support in their everyday lives. 

7370 North Clark Street: Google Streetview photo
Englewood: Photo by Stephanie Barto

An Southern Tradition Brought North

“Storefront churches have a long history in Chicago and can be traced back to the Great Migration, when African Americans moved to northern states to escape the oppression of Jim Crow laws in the south. Bringing their own religious traditions rooted in West African singing and worship, many people were dissatisfied with the churches in the north. As a result, they organized their own churches on corners, in houses, in abandoned buildings, and later in storefronts.  In 1930, storefront churches accounted for 72 percent of the churches started by African-Americans in Chicago; these were categorized at either Baptist, Holiness, or Spiritualist churches.”

“The informal nature of these churches attracted many pastors and priests with no formal theological training. Instead, the churches emphasized the importance of preaching, and preachers who could communicate the voice of the Holy Spirit through a good voice and ability to recall vivid details. During the Great Migration and even afterwards, storefront churches became an informal and spiritual meeting place, where people with similar experiences, beliefs, and backgrounds could come together to pray and support each other emotionally and socially.”

(From Robert L. Boyd. “The Storefront Church Ministry in African-American Communities of the Urban North during the Great Migration: The Making of an Ethnic Niche,” Social Science Journal, vol. 35. Issue 3, 1998).

Part of the Urban Street Scene

The names of storefront churches often conveyed by elaborate exterior signage, express a vitality not found in the names of more traditional churches, while the small, sparely-decorated spaces in many Chicago neighborhoods are a reflection of their roots in the rural South. To outsiders, these factors may  make storefront churches a mysterious and unwelcome addition to a neighborhood, but to others, they reflect a rich cultural diversity that should be celebrated. Local photographers such as Dave Jordano, Mike Steele, Patricia Evans and others have found worthy subject matter in storefront churches, which have found their place in the history and culture of the city. 

Click the buttons to learn more about four storefront churches in Rogers Park and West Ridge.