Small storefront churches bring hope to where it's needed most .
Photographs by Jessica Gryphon
Shortly before 10 a.m. two crack prostitutes walk to 16th and Ogden, near the once thriving retail strip, Ridge Avenue.
A drug dealer tells the prostitutes to wait on the corner. Swaying with the anxious, offbeat rhythm of the addicted, the women do as they are told.
Moments later, as police officers on a drug detail sit on nearby Brown Street, the dealer directs the prostitutes to come ahead.
Shortly after, when another woman leads a man down a dirt path and into an abandoned building where she will earn the money for her next hit, the cycle continues.
This is Sunday morning in North Philadelphia--a place where hardworking people struggle to carve out lives alongside those who have lost hope. It is a place of take-out restaurants with inch-thick Plexiglas, corner stores with wary merchants, dimly lit bars and darkened speakeasies.
And in the midst of it all, between the few tidy homes standing bravely in the heart of decay, there are hundreds-- perhaps thousands--of churches.
Most are little more than storefronts. But inside those tiny edifices, miracles sometimes occur.
On this morning, like many others, call-and-response hymns and pounding drums give way to the swift chord progression known as the Pentecostal run. Sing-song sermons whip parishioners into a faith-induced frenzy. Tears and shouts and praise and worship make the desolation outside seem meaningless.
"This is real!" a woman shouts during the morning service at Faith and Deliverance Outreach Ministry of Philadelphia at 16th and Ridge.
"God is real!"
IN ECONOMICALLY DEPRESSED areas like North Philadelphia, where abandonment and blight have left a legacy of vacant buildings and vacant dreams, the purchase of storefront property by small church congregations is common. And according to some knowledgeable observers, it is needed.
"If there is going to be some maintenance of support in urban communities where there has been flight to the suburbs, the church has to become the lead institution," says Rev. Robert Shine, pastor of Berachah Baptist Church and president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity. "The storefront church becomes the halfway house to maintain some semblance of economics, some semblance of stability in the community because of its presence."
But storefront churches aren't just about economics. In fact, they're just as complex as the Sunday morning rituals of the dealers and prostitutes who hold sway outside their doors.
"You may have three, four, five storefront churches in a very small radius of four or five blocks," Shine says. "In some instances, the churches may be side by side, but you'll never be able to merge them because of the dynamics that separated them in the first place."
Those dynamics include differences in worship philosophy, Shine says. Some congregations may be comfortable with a particular form of worship or expression while others may not. There are also the power struggles that occur when leaders refuse to share authority with others. And some storefront churches remain separate because bad experiences in larger congregations leave members wary of merging with others.
"Sometimes, unfortunately, disgruntlement occurs in the large church," Shine says. "That's unfortunate, and as a consequence, there's a feeling that there needs to be separation. Sometimes it's a disagreement between the leadership of the larger church, and an associate minister might feel the call of God to begin a mission work--a storefront."
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PW's Fall Guide 2014