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Bronzeville, Near South Side

Preservationists, Congregants Race To Save Historic Bronzeville Church In Foreclosure

Current and former members have joined forces with the Coalition of Black House Museums and Preservation Chicago to get landmark status for the building as one church leader fights for ownership.

Current and former members of Bronzeville's Tabernacle Baptist Church stand in front of building Aug. 18. The group is working with Preservation Chicago to have the church recognized as a city landmark.
Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
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GRAND BOULEVARD — Preservationists and former church members are hustling to landmark a beloved Bronzeville church, fearing it could be demolished amid a court battle for control of the building.

Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, 4130 S. Indiana Ave., has stopped hosting in-person worship services and the building has been boarded up. More recently, people have spotted large dumpsters outside and what looks like city permits tacked to the doors.

But church members haven’t been able to get a clear answer on what’s happening with the building.

Eagle Ledge Foundations — described as “church loan specialists” on its website — filed a lawsuit in 2019 against Chicago Title Land Trust and the church. In it, the company alleged it had loaned the church over $300,000, according to a copy of the court documents. When church leaders failed to repay that loan, the building became theirs, the company argued in the suit.

Eagle Ledge Foundation’s website is now suspended and the tax-exempt nonprofit filed for bankruptcy last year. Rev. Edward Lang, a longtime deacon at Tabernacle, said the organization lost the suit earlier this year.

The church is now fighting Chicago Title Land Trust to gain control of the building, filing a suit of their own weeks later. The case is still pending, but Lang said he hopes winning the suit will help members gain ownership.

In the meantime, Preservation Chicago and Coalition of Black House Museums founding member Sajdah Wendy Muhammad are intervening to try to get city landmark status for Tabernacle Missionary Baptist to stop any potential demolition.

Parts of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist date as far back as the late 19th century. The newer part of the church was built in 1946, so it isn’t included in the color-coded houses of worship catalogued in the Chicago Historic Resources survey. If a demolition permit were issued, the city couldn’t move fast enough to landmark it, Preservation Chicago executive director Ward Miller said.

“There’s a real priority to actually expedite this process. If we could get it in the door as a preliminary landmark or a preliminary landmark recommendation, it would have all the protections of a landmark through the process,” Miller said.

Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden?Block Club Chicago
Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church was founded by Rev. Dr. Louis Rawls in 1941.

‘We’ve Had To Sell Stuff To Get Money’

Rev. John Wesley Moore, an early member of the church, said the church is one of six true tabernacles in the world. The building’s design is meant to resemble the description illustrated in the Book of Exodus, Moore said.

Church founder Reverend Dr. Louis Rawls tapped Homer G. Sailor to design what would become one of the most important community hubs in Bronzeville. Sailor was with famed architect Louis Sullivan’s firm at the time.

Tabernacle Missionary Baptist members have been city leaders, judges and academics. Civil rights organization Operation PUSH was launched there before moving to its current Washington Park home and merging to become Rainbow/PUSH, Moore said.

At its peak in the 1940s, the church had 10,000 members, according to the Tribune.

Rawls was a well-respected community leader heralded for his progressive vision. Rawls’ close friend Willie Patt and other church members, including Moore and Barbara Jean Peck, believe that vision made Rawls and the church a target.

“Dr. Rawls had acquired quite a few enemies that were sitting in the congregation of this church, because when you’re trying to progress there’s always a retrogression element that comes in. This is what happened. We had a whole lot of folks who were jealous of what he was doing and what he was trying to accomplish, so they did everything they could to try to tear down who was built up,” Moore said.

That element persisted well after the church leader died in 2002, members said.

Warring factions within Tabernacle Missionary Baptist contributed to its moral and physical decline, Moore said. Lang told Block Club only about 20 members remain.

The church has had a revolving door of lead pastors while continuing to fall into disrepair, according to members. Major work needs to be done on the roof and sanctuary, which has seen flooding in recent years, they said. A 2021 appraisal of the building estimates its worth at $1 million, Lang said.

“We had to sell stuff to get money. We sold the piano, microphones, chairs, other equipment so that we could pay our attorneys,” Lang said.

Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church member Willie Patt, right, with his son. Patt and other longtime members of the church are banding together to save the building.

The church stopped holding in-person Sunday services in January, switching to a phone-in format shortly after, Lang said. But when Sherry Evans, another longtime church member, saw the boarded-up facade as she drove past one April afternoon, she knew something was wrong.

Then there were rumblings about building permits and dumpsters stationed outside the church entrance. The dumpsters have since disappeared and no record of a permit has been found on the city’s building department website, but the group began worrying about the future of their church home, Evans said.

Evans and other members tried contacting former church leaders for answers but had little luck. Patt, another member whose ties to the church span decades, has had sporadic contact with Lang, who has been fully immersed in saving the church.

That’s when the group reached out to Preservation Chicago.

“I started coming here in 1978. I was 24 or 25. Had just got put out by my girlfriend. No job, nothin’. This church taught me how get a job and keep it,” said Patt, who got married at the church in 1980.

Muhammad, who owns the Honorable Elijah Muhammad House Museum, credited Rawls with giving her the confidence to launch her first independent business consulting project fresh out of college.

“He was one of my first clients. I remember being so nervous I didn’t know what to charge him, so when he was like, ‘Is $1,400 ok?’ I said yes! He was so kind,” Muhammad said.

Muhammad was struck by the deep friendship between Rawls and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, which led to Tabernacle Missionary Baptist hosting NOI events. The two were next door neighbors for years, Muhammad said.

“That bond dispelled the idea that there was all this division between interfaith leaders. They were working together to help people,” Muhammad said.

Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
The windows of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church have been boarded up since January.

Muhammad and Preservation Chicago leaders say city landmark status could breathe new life into the beloved building, adding to area’s rich cultural history. It would also be another win for the Bronzeville National Heritage Area Act, which was written into law in December, they said.

Miller told Block Club he’s spoken with newly elected Rep. Jonathan Jackson, son of Rev. Jesse Jackson, about highlighting the Operation PUSH connection to help with landmark efforts. That, along with collecting oral histories from current and former members, could also help the process, Miller said.

If the building can be saved, Muhammad told Block Club she’d love to see it turned into a museum, given Tabernacle Missionary Baptist’s rich history. Members believe there are boxes of photographs and other important documents still inside the boarded-up building.

Lang confirmed those pictures and documents have been placed in a safe.

“A lot of the the members would like to go back into the building, but the building requires so much work that it will take a lot of money to refurbish and restore the building because of the decline and all the violations,” Lang said. “It’s an older property. It needs a lot of attention. My position has always been let the members decide.”

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