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.

The sanctuary at Glorybound Missionary Baptist Church on the far South Side of Chicago. Many of these storefront churches feature permanently shut or painted-over windows, to ensure privacy and security.
The sanctuary at Glorybound Missionary Baptist Church on the far South Side of Chicago. Many of these storefront churches feature permanently shut or painted-over windows, to ensure privacy and security.
Pastor Daisy Williams at the El-Shaddai Miracle Temple in Chicago’s New City neighborhood.
Pastor Daisy Williams at the El-Shaddai Miracle Temple in Chicago’s New City neighborhood.

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.

A doubtful-looking Martin Luther King Jr. sits in front of the pulpit at Travelers Rest Spiritual Church.
A doubtful-looking Martin Luther King Jr. sits in front of the pulpit at Travelers Rest Spiritual Church.
Brendan poses in his new suit at Cathedral of Divine Love Church. The grandly-named Cathedral is set in a tiny former industrial building.
Brendan poses in his new suit at Cathedral of Divine Love Church. The grandly-named Cathedral is set in a tiny former industrial building.
In most churches, baptismal tubs are located in large community areas, but at the Apostolic House of Prayer, this tub occupies a very small private room, with this pivotal moment reserved only fmor very close family members and friends.
In most churches, baptismal tubs are located in large community areas, but at the Apostolic House of Prayer, this tub occupies a very small private room, with this pivotal moment reserved only fmor very close family members and friends.
Pastor Anderson at the New Hope in Christ Revival Center.
Pastor Anderson at the New Hope in Christ Revival Center.
A young man holding blessed flowers at the Grace Miracle Temple.
A young man holding blessed flowers at the Grace Miracle Temple.
The men’s side at the Children of Light Church. The pastor separates the men from the women during service to suppress the temptation of carnal knowledge.
The men’s side at the Children of Light Church. The pastor separates the men from the women during service to suppress the temptation of carnal knowledge.
Missionary Mary Miles at God is Able Missionary Baptist Church. The church was founded with twenty members in a private home in 1992. In the twenty-three years since, God is Able has held services at five different locations. The congregation is currently raising funds to build a permanent home.
Missionary Mary Miles at God is Able Missionary Baptist Church. The church was founded with twenty members in a private home in 1992. In the twenty-three years since, God is Able has held services at five different locations. The congregation is currently raising funds to build a permanent home.
A portrait of the church founder hangs above a drum set at Lily of the Valley Spiritual Church.
A portrait of the church founder hangs above a drum set at Lily of the Valley Spiritual Church.
Zachary poses at Bible Way Church of Holiness in Christ.
Zachary poses at Bible Way Church of Holiness in Christ.
Pastor Edgar Mallett in his back room at Prayer and Faith Church of the First Born.
Pastor Edgar Mallett in his back room at Prayer and Faith Church of the First Born.
Wall with photographs at Marvelous Light Apostolic Church.
Wall with photographs at Marvelous Light Apostolic Church.
Pastor Willie Woodall at Holy Victory Church of Holiness.
Pastor Willie Woodall at Holy Victory Church of Holiness.
A sanctuary detail at New Friendship Missionary Baptist Church #2.
A sanctuary detail at New Friendship Missionary Baptist Church #2.

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Dave Jordano is an award-winning documentary photographer based in Chicago. His work is included in the collections of The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Detroit Institute of Arts; and the Block Museum at Northwestern University. His first book, “Articles of Faith” was published in April 2009 by The Center for American Places, Columbia College Press.