LET THE CHURCH SAY AMEN

Storefront Churches

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Storefront Churches

Brick storefront church with sign reading “Jesus Loves Me” 

Red storefront church with a small gate across the door and two crosses on either side. 

Sign for a storefront church reading: “Christ’s Chosen Church of God Int’l USA Inc, New York Branch”

The storefront church phenomenon is familiar to historically black American communities. During the Jim Crow era, community-based churches were a crucial source of social and spiritual support for many Southern blacks—even the poorest church was an institution that was black-led and provided a much-needed space for community participation. Black churches in the South formed separate congregations and associations after the Civil War, refusing to join white-led churches, where segregated seating arrangements and patronizingly racist sermons were the norm.

During the late 1800s and early-to-mid 1900s, thousands of blacks migrated from the rural South to seek work in cities, both in the North and the South. Many of the larger, established black congregations (such as Abyssinian Baptist in New York City and Olivet Baptist in Chicago) reacted to this migration by developing social services to assist the influx of newcomers. The increased churchgoing population, however, was often more than city churches could accommodate.

Some migrants felt unwelcome at the larger black churches, which had predominantly middle- and upper-class parishioners, many of whom looked down on the poorer newcomers and derided storefront preachers for their lack of theological training. In response, newly urban congregations soon assembled home-based and storefront churches that resembled the churches of their hometowns. Decades later, despite increased secularism, storefront and community churches have remained strong influences in black America, offering educational and financial resources in addition to religious ministry.

The World Missions for Christ Church: A Storefront Church Profile
Brother C preaches in the street in front of a door and a window bearing crosses, holding a Bible in one hand and wearing a bullhorn around his neck.

To the average passerby, The World Missions for Christ Church looks unassuming enough: a tiny red building that once housed a corner store on a bleak city block in Washington, D.C. But like many other “storefront” or community churches in the U.S., World Missions is not “just” a religious ministry—it also plays a crucial role in the community, offering social services such as food and clothing drives, tutoring and job skills training in addition to reaching out spiritually to community members both on and off the streets.

Led by Pastor Bobby Perkins and his sister JoAnn, World Missions began in the 1970s, when Bobby and JoAnn’s mother May fled her abusive husband in North Carolina with her 12 children. The Perkins family traveled as a gospel-singing group and soon settled in D.C., where JoAnn established the church and served as its pastor. Today, World Missions continues to provide community services, and also offers religious services on the sidewalk, because, as Bobby explains, “We’re a street ministry, so we got to be in the streets.” World Missions also ministers to a shelter for battered women, a juvenile prison and drug recovery shelter in the nation’s capital, where severe economic disparities are part of everyday life.

Storefront Parishes Today

Today, storefront churches continue to play an important part in many American communities. In inner city neighborhoods like the Shaw district in Washington, D.C., a storefront church provides an impetus for change in a neighborhood that has seen better days. The storefront venue is also a product of economics: many poorer neighborhoods lack the funds to build a church from scratch. Some churches also rent spaces in local schools or other community buildings in which to conduct services, and their pastors, bishops and preachers often have self-proclaimed titles, not having followed the traditional routes of attending seminary or theological school.

Storefront churches also establish local, grassroots connections within their communities for the benefit of the communities themselves, while larger and more affluent churches might seem less attuned to a neighborhood’s needs. For example, some independent community churches support members by fundraising and helping with basic needs such as housing and education. Also, like Brother C in LET THE CHURCH SAY AMEN, church leaders might reach out spiritually by preaching on street corners and in local homes, and by knocking on doors within the neighborhood.

Storefront churches today are not just black and urban. Many have recently been established in Latino- and Asian-dominated neighborhoods, as well as poorer rural communities, typically serving similar functions as the storefront churches in historically black communities. These new places of worship are by no means limited to Christian denominations, as demonstrated by the increase of storefront mosques and temples in the U.S. Regardless of faith, location or race, these independent ministries remain vital to communities throughout America.

Sources

Fly Away: The Great Migration

“Houses of Worship Sprout in Central City”
By Karamagi Rujumba
The Toledo Blade, February 7, 2005

The History of Jim Crow: Surviving Jim Crow

The Reader’s Companion to American History: Black Churches

Photos

Jesus Loves Me Open Door Ministry photo by Gerald L. Campbell.

Unknown red church photo by Rudy Grahn, Jr.

Christ's Chosen Church photo by Mike Epstein.

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