Houses of worship are typically large and open public spaces, but African-American storefront churches are by their very nature a more private way of practicing one’s faith. In contrast to churches serving larger congregations, these churches, which dot the South and West sides of Chicago — and other cities throughout the country — are more like tight-knit family circles. They occupy spaces that were once butcher shops, beauty salons, hardware stores and private homes, and often host services for just a handful of people.
Fascinated by these former commercial venues, I’ve photographed between sixty and seventy storefront spaces, none of which were originally designed to house churches. Fronted by hand-painted murals or simple signs, some have been around for fifty years or longer; others come and go in the space of a few months. Oftentimes they are set up to fulfill the dream of a pastor with a calling to preach and a specific mission. Almost all of them are Baptist, steeped in traditions African-Americans brought with them when migrating from the South over a century ago.
The simple layout of these sites belies the importance of their existence. These tiny spaces have come to symbolize comfort, hope and connection for their members, who often live in high-crime urban environments. It is my hope that these photographs of small churches depict more than the details and design of these places of worship, but that they illuminate one of our connective links to the past and present African-American experience. To me, these are simple places of worship, but rich with messages.