There were times, on this recent Sunday morning, when the sunlight pouring through the stained-glass windows of the former Austin Boulevard Christian Church warmed some of the empty pews. It was a noticeable sight to see, illuminating a sanctuary that, for many months, basked in silence.
In late 2011, the building’s main occupant, ABC church, which had existed for 115 years along the border between Austin and its home in Oak Park, closed its doors. Maintaining the aging property proved too burdensome and it was put it on the market.
More than three years later, Rev. Haman Gibson, the pastor of its new occupant, New Life Ministries Church of God in Christ, sat in the church’s gallery space enclosed in a room that is directly in back of the pulpit.
The walls are outfitted with numerous photos of Gibson’s family members and congregants of the New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ. Located on the South Side, New Jerusalem is where Gibson, his wife of 41 years, Sharon, and his family attended before deciding to start their own place of worship 14 years ago.
“When we came into the building, we knew it had some challenges, but we took them on anyway,” Gibson said of the Austin Boulevard church. “We’re just about done with the whole building except for a couple of rooms on the second floor.”
In September 2012, less than a year after the ABC congregation put the imposing brick church on the market, New Life closed the deal on the building six months into deliberations, purchasing the property for $600,000.
A member of the Disciples of Christ Illinois/Wisconsin denomination, ABC Church comprised a diverse racial and ethnic demographic, reflective of Oak Park and Austin, where it got most of its members.
With a predominately black congregation, New Life is affiliated with Church of God in Christ, the largest African-American Pentecostal denomination in the country.
Gibson, who started his church in his basement, said that many of his approximately 25 members are from Oak Park and Austin. And while some may consider it a challenge straddling the not-so-subtle Oak Park/Austin dividing line, Gibson views it as an opportunity.
“Once we got in the building, people were leery and skeptical of us, but I think we’ve been received pretty well in this area overall,” said Gibson, who lives in Austin just blocks away from the 634 N. Austin Blvd. church.
“People used to look at us strange, but now they accept us in this area. We don’t have a problem with them talking to us now. I’ve gotten to know [the residents’] dogs, so that’s a good conversation piece,” Gibson said.
The idea to start a church grew from working with young people, he recalled, many of whom he would rescue from the sidewalks around Lake Street and Damen.
“We had about 100 kids in the basement of my house at one time. We’d go to the projects and pick up these kids and bring them to church,” Gibson said. “We taught them how to read through reading the Bible. We taught them how to sing. We had a fairly good program going on during those early years.”
Kiwon Carter was one of those kids.
He and his grandmother, Beatrice Carter, were walking into the sanctuary at New Life as the Sunday afternoon service was just beginning to reach its crescendo. It was Women’s Day and a young lady named Sharmar Doss, who couldn’t have been older than 11, had worked the congregation into a spiritual frenzy with an interpretive dance.
“I love it,” said Beatrice, who, along with her grandson, has been a member of New Life since its beginnings in Gibson’s basement.
The pastor said that the church is adapting its outreach for social media by way of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and several other platforms — New Life wants to attract a new cycle of members.
An increase in membership would nudge the church closer to Gibson’s goal of paying down the mortgage on the century-old building within five years and growing the church’s burgeoning social ministry.
“We’ve got a lot of programs going,” Sister Barbara Johnson, an usher who has also been attending New Life since its basement days, said. Johnson recalled visiting the church to make sure that her nieces were being taught the right things. She’s been coming back ever since, drawn by both the worship experience and the weekday programming.
This past summer, New Life fed children under 18 and regularly operates a food pantry each Thursday and Friday. Gibson said that the church is seeking to administer a CEDA (Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County) program in the near-future. The congregation, Gibson added, is seeking to gradually scale up its social footprint in the community, taking its social mission “one step at a time.”
Michael Romain is founder and
editor of TheVillageFreePress.org