The pastor of Unity of Love Praise Temple in Southeast Washington was misidentified in a photo caption Dec. 25, 1999 accompanying an article Saturday on storefront churches. The pastor, who was not in the photo, is the Rev. James Bell Sr. (Published 12/30/1999)
"We want to sing to these people," Felecia Motley declared. With that, the 25 men, women and children hiking single-file up South Capitol Street halted at the garish yellow neon for "Al's Liquor."
Gloved, scarved and jacketed against the chill of a recent evening, the Christmas carolers from Redemption Ministry compressed like accordion bellows. Children squeezed tiny plastic flashlights to illuminate the sheet music. And "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" filled this oft-forgotten corner of Southwest Washington.
As the millennium ticks through its final celebration of the event that gave it shape, the moment Christians believe God became human in lowly surroundings, Redemption Ministry represents transformation of another sort. Located in a former Payless ShoeSource just a block from Al's Liquor, it is a modern incarnation of that enduring staple of American religious life: the storefront church.
Megachurches, such as Landover's 11,500-member Jericho City of Praise, have drawn national attention in recent years because of their huge followings and gigantic sanctuaries. But the counterpoint to those imposing houses of worship can be found in the Washington region's storefronts, which local community and religious leaders say are holding their own and growing.
"There's an amazing number of them," said Sharon Kelso, executive director of United Community Ministries in Alexandria.
Like their more established sister churches, storefronts around the area have been marking Christ's birthday with neighborhood caroling, Christmas eve concerts, candlelight services last night and works of charity today.
For many small, young congregations, Kelso noted, renting vacant commercial space is a speedy, inexpensive way to secure a place to worship. That has been so ever since storefront churches began dotting American streets 100 years ago with the migration of African Americans from the south to northern cities.
Today, other factors are contributing to storefront vitality: disenchantment with mainline churches; the spread of nondenominational Christianity, with its strong impulse to evangelize; and the desire of immigrants to preserve religious customs. Latino Pentecostals and African-born Christians, for example, have opened storefronts in Northern Virginia.
Storefront members use one word above all others to explain their choice: "family." They say they are looking for a smaller, more intimate community in which personal relationships are easily forged.
"We just hug and love each other every day--like on Christmas," said Teresa Morris, a federal government employee from Northeast Washington who attends Jubilee Outreach Ministries of America, a Southeast storefront. "We're like one big family, you know."
Storefronts in this region vary widely. Some do not last past a season of "Amens." Others prove to be seeds for grander operations. Jericho, for instance, had its origins in the mid-1960s services attended by six people in the basement of the District's Odd Fellow Association.
Several more traditional storefronts--the tiny congregations in former shops whose doors open directly onto the sidewalk--are found in the 3100 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.
In addition to Jubilee Outreach, whose members worship in a former Chinese restaurant, the block is home to Temple Missionary Baptist and Charity Full Gospel Holiness churches--whose slogan is "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus." Sandwiched between them is a storefront mosque, Masjidush-Shura.
A few miles down the street, Unity of Love Praise Temple--15 years old and 30 members strong--operates out of the old Congress Heights post office. In Northeast Washington, the 80-member Upon This Rock, "The Church With the Outreached Arms," holds services in a ground-floor, corner apartment near tidy, brick row houses.
Small, city storefronts like these typically have been "churches of the working poor," said Matthew J. Price, a sociologist at Duke University Divinity School's Ormond Center. Falling between the desperately unemployed and the prosperous middle class, storefront members are often reluctant to attend larger, established churches, he said, because they lack the right clothes or cars.
But other storefronts have a larger, more affluent clientele. Consider Sword of the Spirit Praise and Worship Center, a nondenominational church with Baptist roots in Prince George's County. Located in a 17,000-square-foot commercial space that once displayed racks of "Fashion Bug" dresses, the Forestville church has 500 members. At one end is a sanctuary draped with purple cloth. At the other, banquet tables have been readied for today's Christmas celebration, when Sword members will cook and serve a holiday meal for up to 500 needy people.
"Our choir will be singing," said the Rev. Robert L. Bryan Jr., the pastor.
One-year-old Church of the Spirit is in Kingstowne, Fairfax County, a residential community where homes cost $190,000 to $300,000. About 160 people from the neighborhood attend services in a low-slung, brick warehouse behind a Wal-Mart. The church also is different because it was opened by a mainline denomination.
Said the Rev. Roger Schellenberg, the church's Episcopal pastor: "I'm the first storefront in the Diocese of Virginia."
No matter the size, location or prosperity of its congregants, however, storefronts are powerhouses of song and prayer. Teresa Morris joins her church "family" every Sunday morning at Jubilee Outreach Ministries of America, a nondenominational church founded five years ago when Pastor Paulette Mercer began meeting with 10 people in a rented house.
Mercer, 45, who lives in Camp Springs and was raised in the Church of God in Christ, is a former nurse's assistant. Now, she said, her goal is "to make an impact on people's lives" so they know they're important and can "come out of an impoverished mentality."
One recent Sunday, usher Avery Richards, 16, wearing white gloves, greeted people at the door of the turquoise-colored storefront. Inside, the room had a blue shag carpet, rows of pink-cushioned folding chairs, two arrangements of green and orange artificial flowers and a Formica lectern.
Morris's 7-year-old son, Adrian, adroitly manned a set of drums, though it dwarfed his tiny frame. George McDuffie fingered an electronic keyboard. Adrian's brother, Joshua, 3, was dressed to the nines in a long-sleeved white shirt, paisley vest, pants and tiny black wingtip shoes. He sat quietly during the service, obediently tapping a tambourine his mother placed in his hands.
The 50 worshipers, mostly women, teenagers and children, clapped hands and shook tambourines, praising Jesus in rousing song. At one point, everyone hugged.
The pastor's niece, Vondra McDuffie, 17, of Southeast, preached on the importance of listening to God. "If you're always talking all the time, how can you listen?" she asked. Her church shows the Christmas spirit "all year long," she said. "They go out of their way to help people so nobody will be lacking or feel left out."
Just over the District line in Capitol Heights, Doug and Patricia Joyner, who belong to the Church of God in Christ, co-pastor a congregation of about 70 people in a two-story tenement on Larchmont Avenue. Their 10-year-old church, Jubilee Outreach Ministries, is not connected to Mercer's.
Doug Joyner, 48, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, considers the church a storefront even though it operates from a house. Such churches are thriving, he said, because "they outreach more."
Members, including many teenagers and young children, visit neighbors regularly, hold services in a nursing home every fifth Sunday and, this Christmas, will help serve a meal to homeless men at Northwest's Central Union Mission.
If someone doesn't show for Bible class or services, they get a call from a church member. Joyner transports young members to mid-week Bible studies and tracks their schoolwork, visiting teachers if necessary. "I want to know why they get bad report cards," he said. "We want them to know that they've got to do well if they're going to have a balanced life."
On a recent evening at the storefront, where four separate Bible study classes were underway, Crystal Holt, 17, discussed with other teenagers how being "saved" had changed her life.
"Our pastor tries to keep us busy instead of being on the streets," said the Southeast teenager, who likes her small church because "you get more attention." It's not the size of the congregation, she stressed, "it's what's in your heart. . . . We make the church. The church is not the building. It's the people."
Across the table, 15-year-old Sheona Hobbs said she appreciated that "this church talks about sex and drugs and what's going on now and how can we deal with it in Christ. My other church was scared to say the word 'sex.' "
Redemption Ministry also believes in personal outreach. Sunday services, which can run four hours, draw a regular crowd of about 125 to the nondenominational storefront.
"The young people really enjoy being in the service," said the pastor, the Rev. Anthony J. Motley. "We have a dynamic music ministry. And we give them an opportunity to give testimony about how God is changing their lives. When the service starts, they don't watch the clock. I like that."
Redemption began six years ago when Motley, an ordained Baptist minister, Howard School of Divinity graduate and ex-paratrooper, decided to focus his ministry on the neighborhood where he grew up. He and his wife, Felecia, initially held services in their apartment, then at Ballou High School. In February 1998, they leased the former Payless ShoeSource.
The old shoe store now sports a low stage with three drum sets, two keyboards, a piano and four microphones. A table covered in purple cloth is set with a crucifix, a Bible and red poinsettias. A large banner states, "At Redemption Ministry you can come as you are and God will do the rest!!"
When people complained that they didn't have good enough clothes to attend church, "We said, 'Come as you are,' " Motley, 52, said. "I preach in jogging suits and jeans so they don't feel intimidated."
The church is open six days a week and offers after-school study hall, a Saturday homework-help session, free HIV and AIDS testing and, once a month, a neighborhood "walk-about" to talk with people and share the gospel.
"A lot of the traditional churches have become very large organizations and a lot of times people get lost," Motley said. "There's a need to have more personal ministry . . . especially with the kind of work we do on the streets."
James Edward Ricardo Attaway Sr., 49, who was among Redemption's carolers, was recently homesick and "feeling lonely" when Motley showed up.
"It made me feel so good that somebody cared," Attaway said. "It's just a joyful place to be. You feel comfortable. You can talk about things that bother you. The pastor has time for us. . . . This is home."
CAPTION: Members of Redemption Ministry, a storefront church in Southwest Washington, sing Christmas carols in front of the residence of elderly and disabled neighbors.
CAPTION: Jubilee Outreach Ministries of America is a storefront church in Southeast Washington, one of several in old stores in the area.
CAPTION: Church member Jerrell Johnson gets a hug from Pastor Paulette Mercer during a service at Jubilee Outreach Ministries of America in Southeast Washington.
CAPTION: Redemption Ministry members Kathy McFarland, left, and Margo Thomas sing carols in front of the storefront church in Southwest Washington.
CAPTION: Marita McLain and others respond to Pastor Frank Jones's rap song during a service at Unity of Love Praise Temple in Southeast Washington.