On a frigid Sunday morning on Jan. 17, three congregations that currently share the sanctuary at First Church of the Brethren, 425 S. Central Park Blvd., in Garfield Park, sang songs that, nowadays, you’re more likely to hear in a PBS documentary than in person.
The more than 100 congregants joined in “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Oh Freedom,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” and sat silently through a touching rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” that was played on an electric guitar during a sunbathed moment of reflection.
During a moment of collective prayer, some people solicited divine intercession for Laquan McDonald, Bettie Jones, Syrian refugees, the Middle East and Chicago Public Schools as sunrays, refracted through a civil rights-themed stained glass window, shone brightly on their bowed heads.
On the surface, it’s an unusual scene. After all, most of the people gathered are white. Some are Hispanic. There was only a handful of blacks. But dig deeper into First Brethren’s history and it’s just another Sunday in a more than century-old tradition of opening its doors to, and fighting for the dignity of, others.
According to an online history of the church authored by its former pastor, Orlando Redekopp, the church’s origins date to 1885, when it held its first worship service on State Street before moving to Hastings Street in 1892 and then to its current location on the West Side in 1925.
The church’s current pastor, Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, said although it’s predominantly white, the congregation has been racially integrated since at least the 1950s, when, according to Redekopp, the church threw open its doors to a Spanish-language congregation.
During World War II, the church provided temporary housing for interned Japanese Americans. And the practice of providing temporary respite continues to this day. Two other churches — La Iglesia Christiana Roca’de Esperanza and Chicago Community Mennonite Church — currently use First Brethren’s sanctuary for their respective worship services.
On Jan. 17, the three congregations, who usually utilize the sanctuary at different times, came together to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the time the church opened its doors to its most famous outsider — the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The least they could do
In 1966, King came to Chicago to protest housing segregation in northern cities. In January of that year, he moved into a third-floor apartment at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave., in North Lawndale.
“We don’t have wall-to-wall carpeting to worry about, [but] we do have wall-to-wall rats and roaches,” King reportedly said of the squalor.
But at least he had shelter. Looking for a place from which he could work and organize his northern campaign for fair housing would prove more difficult.
He was stonewalled by then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, who had the support of many black pastors in the city — most of whom were deeply critical of the “carpet-bagging” southern preacher. Those who weren’t outspoken against King were advised by Daley against lending any concrete support for the activist — lest they face concrete consequences.
One of the few black preachers who did, the Rev. Clay Evans, of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church on the South Side, said many of the ministers who, along with him, wanted to support King “had to back off because they didn’t want their buildings to be condemned or given citations for electrical work, faulty plumbing, or fire code violations.”
The late Rev. Sheldon Hall, who pastored the historic Friendship Baptist Church in Austin, said when King came to the city, “I was going to let him speak, no matter what the consequence would be.”
The press served up intimidation of another kind for white ministers and community leaders who thought about lending their support to King.
When Daley wasn’t intimidating black preachers, papers like the Chicago Tribune were pillorying King in editorials, accusing him of “criminal syndicalism” for disturbing the segregated tranquility of the city’s white neighborhoods and suburbs with marches and demonstrations.
But, according to Nkosi, the newspaper threats were a small cross to bear, particularly compared to the kinds of threats black churches faced.
“There was a threat put out by Mayor Daley at the time, who told black churches that he’d cut the services in their neighborhood if they accept this upstart,” she said. “This congregation, being mostly white, never received the threat. This church is big on acting out your faith through justice. They figured, the least they could do was open up shop [to King and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference].”
King kept an office in the church’s annex and would hold forth during hearings on unfair public housing at the church. One of the few records of him having been at the church are three photos from a Jan. 26, 1966 hearing that were published in the Messenger.
“When he came here in 1966, the church looked entirely different on the inside,” said Erma Purnell, who has been a member of the church since 1971. “It’s a lot of history here, but we couldn’t declare the church a historical place, because the whole inside has been renovated.”
Some of those renovations, like the stained glass window that Purnell said was installed in 2000, recall the church’s historic connection to the civil rights icon. A profile of King’s raised face — as if he’s looking to a mountaintop — commands one corner of the window while a multihued group of children crowd the bottom corner of the window facing King.
If the physical remnants of the icon having been here may be gone, some of the people remain.
Walter Thurman, 82, lived in an apartment around the corner from the church while King was here. One day, he recalled, he overheard King in casual chatter with a child from the neighborhood.
“I took a few of my kids out on the veranda so they could see and hear him,” said Thurman, who added that, because of the demands of his job, he never got to hear King speak formally at the church.
“This is where his office was,” said Nkosi. “It’s been redone. It used to be where King and the SCLC worked. He would sometimes walk to another church down the street. It’s no longer there.”
It was a small room that featured a series of windows opening up views onto an empty plot of land across Central Park Boulevard — an expansive symbol of the blight and disinvestment that brought King to Chicago 50 years ago and that stubbornly persists today.
“Thurman always tells the story about how Dr. King sat in this corner and he’d talk to people out of the window while he was here and he’d sweep the alleys,” she said while looking out of the window.
“When you see those historic photos — he was a young guy. We always think he was so old, but he wasn’t. He was vibrant and in the community when he was here.”
Nkosi now keeps her office where King kept his during those heady days in early 1966. Even though the layout has changed, Nkosi said she still feels the weight of history. King’s aura, despite the church’s physical reconstruction, has stayed behind. And so has his message.
“The history of our church is such that, we’d have a service today and then go downtown to stand in front of the South African embassy and hold signs,” Nkosi said, referencing the church’s anti-Apartheid stance.
During the Jan. 17 service, Nkosi and another congregant read King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech that he delivered on April 4, 1967 — exactly a year before his assassination.
“People told him that civil rights didn’t mix with international peacemaking, but he said they were wrong,” said Dennis Koehn, of the Chicago Community Mennonite Church, in a presentation during the morning service.
“King linked civil rights at home with international peace and certainly this is an inherent and intimate connection, alarmingly evident today in 2016. Martin talked about funds being taken away from poverty programs to fight wars in Vietnam and elsewhere. Already, in 2008, we read estimates from economist Joseph Stiglitz that American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would eventually cost $3 trillion. King recognized that America’s wars were ‘an enemy of the poor’ and they still are.”