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Any given Sunday

Behind humble storefronts, the city's smallest congregations find family, freedom and a resounding faith.


Look on the broad city streets, between the secondhand computer shops that promise working, whirring PCs for $100 and the barbershops that stay bright when the streets grow dark. There you will find the storefront churches, the city's humblest places of worship.

It's easy to miss these tiny ministries. Most are hidden behind iron gates and reinforced windows, marked by flapping vinyl banners or hand-lettered signs. Their names are ancient: Jehovah-Nissi. Calvary. Good Samaritan. Mount Moriah. Their rise here is recent. And they thrive in some of the toughest urban frontiers.

At 11 a.m., the congregation of Immanuel Church filters into the storefront ministry at 1423 Hull St. Families greet each other and inquire about new shoes and new grandbabies. Strangers' proffered handshakes are returned with hugs.

"Praise the Lord, everyone!" calls the minister.

Hymnals open to page 66. The pianist leans over the piano, a delicate white hat perched on her gray hair. The young drummer lifts his sticks. And the congregation launches into "There's Something About That Name."

It is more than a hymn. The mouths and hands and feet and heads of the congregation turn the one-page song in the battered red "Praise!" book into a symphony.

"Jesus, Jesus, Je-sus! Let heaven and earth proclaim — kings and kingdoms will all pass away. But there's something about that name." Over and over they sing the chorus, accompanied by thunderous cymbals and trembling tambourines, hallelujahs and amens. Words of praise roll through the room from the four ministers at the front. "Praise Jesus — I tell you — Hallelujah!"

People rise as if lifted from the white folding chairs. They clap, sway and sing. Babies in laps watch wide-eyed but despite the tumult, do not cry.

The glass door to the tiny church is closed against the cold. From outside, this humble storefront seems as mute as the shut-up shops surrounding it. But what if the door flew open so the song could ring into the Sunday-silent air over Hull Street? Imagine 20 church doors flung wide, 20 swelling spirituals filling the morning. People would drive down Hull Street just to hear the joy.

Richmond is a city of churches of all kinds. Spired and low, sprawling and small, new and venerable, rich and modest. Why worship in a storefront?

It's about freedom, many pastors say. "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty," says Sherry H. Ross, pastor of Immanuel Church. "We're not under anybody but God."

At some Baptist churches, Ross says, the board of trustees dictates what topics a preacher may choose for sermons. At Immanuel, the footnote to the Sunday program reads: "Please Note: Service is Subject to Change By the Leading of the Holy Spirit." In other words, Ross takes her cue from only one place.

In their search for religious freedom, pastors of storefront churches are "almost like Pilgrims," says Maj. Daniel Goodall of the Richmond Police. A Baptist minister himself, Goodall knows many young men and women who have founded storefronts in order to worship as they please. It's not a new phenomenon — the tradition of storefront churches began in the 1920s — "but the growth of it is kind of new," Goodall observes.

People find their way to each storefront church through family, by word of mouth or by following their feet to the door. The Rev. William Mickey, assistant pastor at Immanuel, says God told him four years ago to leave his old church and go to Immanuel.

"I went to the wrong Immanuel," Mickey says. "I set there for a year and nothing happened. Then God spoke to me and said, 'You go to Immanuel' — and this is the one he was speaking of."

"People come and go," Ross says. Some outgrow the ministry and start their own. "You get to the point — you can't really have too many pastors under one roof."

Like the Pilgrims, storefront pastors have found that setting up homesteads can be difficult. Nearly every church has been robbed not once, but several times. Pastor Jesse Lewis' church at 1818 Hull St., Greater Mt. Moriah Evangelistic Ministry, had to board up its front windows after thieves broke in one night and stole the church keyboard and stereo. After three break-ins in six months claimed Immanuel's speakers, amps and drums, Ross barred the back door and installed a heavy folding metal gate over the entranceway. "And we still have a crack in that door," she says ruefully.

The ministers share their territory with hustlers, the homeless and the hopeless. Pastor Leroy Cary often chases drug dealers from their post beside the wooden cross outside Promises of God Ministry, the church he started in his old garage. Once, Lewis found a dead woman slumped in the recessed doorway of Greater Mt. Moriah. Another time, he saw a seated man leaning against a nearby lightpost. Lewis shook him and said, "Wake up, brother. It's Sunday morning." He, too, had died on the street.

Yet the plight of urban communities is the other reason storefront ministries are where they are. "We all have one common goal — and that is to clean Hull Street up," Lewis says of the many pastors who have staked a claim there. Immanuel's Ross agrees. "That is our vision, to stay in the community," she says.

"I feel that we have to be here," Cary says, "because the people in real need, they're not going to go over there" to the large churches. "Richmond Christian Center is up here," he says, reaching up above his head. "Somebody's got to be down here."

During the week, Sherry Ross arranges vacations at Covington Travel. Sundays at Immanuel, she directs people to salvation.

When she ascends the pulpit in white robes, the room falls quiet. "Ever hear anyone say, 'Child, I know God'? Who do you think you're fooling?" she asks the congregation. Ross continues: "The God that I know, the God that I serve — sometimes he will tell you to Shut. Up." Her voice, normally soft, is deep and resonant. When she leans into the microphone, her words become thunder.

Today's sermon is about allowing oneself to be formed and filled by God. We are clay, Ross tells her congregants, to be shaped and made whole. But some of us have holes.

"Leaky people kill marriages," she says.

"Uh-huh! My Lord!" say some in the audience.

"Because you can never love them enough."

"Yeah! Jesus!"

"Never love them enough," Ross repeats. But they can be reshaped and saved, she says. That clay, scooped raw from the ground, is not who we are. "Somebody say, 'It's me. But it's not me.'"

The congregation turns to each other and echoes: "It's me. But it's not me."

"It doesn't matter," Ross says, "if you're still in his hands."

By the end of her sermon, nearly everyone is standing, rapt. "Thank you Lord!" one woman says.

A minister then calls people up to be saved, to take communion. "Pray for this young man," Ross adds. "He's only been saved for four months. You know he's a prime target for the enemy. The Devil loves babies."

She puts her hand on the shoulder of a clean-cut man in his 20s. He stands in a suit and green tie, his expression troubled. "We want to encircle him. Put him in a circle." People come forward and surround the young man. Ross calls a blessing on him: "Thank you that he's not into drugs! Thank you that he's not on the street!" He bows his head and says "Thank you Lord," low and clear, over and over. Ross looks as if she's about to cry.

She's been Immanuel's pastor for two years now. "This is our little domain," Ross says, smiling as she leads the way into the sanctuary on a quiet Wednesday evening. It is long and narrow, like most storefront churches, and holds seven rows of white folding chairs. Four people with arms outstretched could span the sanctuary, which once was a department store. Bouquets of red and gold silk flowers are pinned to the walls. "We love this little place," she says. "We've been here a long time."

Immanuel Pentecostal Church was founded in 1974 by Bishop Norman Dowden and his wife, Ossie, who were Ross' godparents. Six years gone now, they still look toward the altar from twin portraits on the wood-paneled rear wall.

"When it first started — five," Ross says, holding up her outstretched hand to number the congregation. "And they were all old."

She came here for the first time in May of 1986 to hear her sister preach. "I will never forget it. I was sitting over there in about the fourth row, in the corner," Ross says, pointing to one worn white chair. She'd been a member of a big church for most of her life, but something about the modest Immanuel made her feel at home. "It was just real," she explains.

A few months later, Ross became a minister. On the third Sunday of September 1986 — the date is engraved in her memory — she delivered her first sermon. It was titled "To God Be The Glory." Ross later became assistant pastor, then two years ago, Immanuel's pastor under the church's bishop, Mack Austin.

The church is now nondenominational. Membership in Immanuel swells and wanes, numbering anywhere from 50 to 75, Ross says. About 15 are her relatives. For a church so small, it's fairly diverse — there are black and white members as well as an entire family from Nairobi, Kenya.

The chairs are worn, and the carpet needs replacing. But Immanuel does own two retired 47-passenger Greyhound buses called the God-Sent Express, 1 and 2. The "bus ministry" takes members to conferences and fellowship meetings and sends children on excursions to Six Flags and the beach.

Ross, 55, works nine to five at the travel agency but considers herself a minister full time. When someone calls her at work to say, "Pastor, pray for me, I've got this struggle," she says, "I just want to pick up everything and leave and say, 'I'll meet you at the church.'"

Storefront churches began to proliferate in cities in the 1920s, during the Great Migration of blacks from rural to urban areas after World War I. Newcomers sought a spiritual refuge that was small and intimate, like the country churches they had left.

"They provided a sort of home for many migrants," says Shalanda D. Dexter, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego who has researched the evolution of urban black churches.

Services, often in the Baptist, Pentecostal or Holiness traditions, were held in homes or storefronts because members could not always afford a building of their own. Congregations welcomed families shunned at larger, older churches because of their background or class.

Today, storefronts continue to thrive in cities. They still offer the atmosphere of "intimacy, control, accountability," Dexter says. But in general, they have moved away from Pentecostal and related traditions and instead embrace "alternative" Christian movements. "I think they've been unfairly characterized as a place for emotionalism and fanatical worship," Dexter says. To her, they are places of refuge and solace.

Some mainstream church leaders look askance at the storefront preachers. Rarely are they ordained, and some have no formal religious education at all. Lewis has a degree from the Community Bible Institute and once traveled the South evangelizing. Ross has completed a Christian home-study program and also attended Virginia Commonwealth University classes and Bible school. Cary has a G.E.D. he obtained through Job Corps and, he says, a natural gift for ministry.

Whatever their background, they get things done. Each of the little churches keeps a small food bank and clothes closet. They provide free monthly dinners, help people find jobs, hand out hot dogs on the sidewalk and invite in those who are lost. In May, Lewis' church protested the coming of an ABC-licensed convenience store on Hull Street, less than a block from Greater Mt. Moriah. Despite the demonstrations, a judge affirmed that the store was allowed. So, Lewis says, "We just stopped battling with them and started praying." The store closed after about six months. "We got a God that's bigger than ABC," he says.

Individually, their works may go unnoticed, or mocked. "We've been laughed and snickered at," says Lewis. But some are hoping to change that. Last fall, Ross sent letters to ministers on nine blocks of Hull Street to invite them to meet. That led to "Hands Along Hull," a candlelight vigil held by members of several churches one night in November. Ross describes the sight as "just awesome."

Leroy Cary used to fix cars. Now he mends young lives.

"It's a story to tell you. It's a testimony that God has given me. This was my auto repair shop," Cary says with a wide, gold-toothed smile, standing in the long cinderblock building at Porter and W. 22nd streets.

Two markers proclaim the building's conversion: a wooden cross planted in a heap of broken stones and a finely painted sign, lettered with "Promises of God Ministry" and showing a dark-skinned, robed Jesus standing before a heavenly city. (The figure's face is blotted out with white paint. Vandals? No, Cary says. He did it for theological reasons; the holy spirit is faceless.)

People still come to the door sometimes to see if he can fix their cars, Cary says. They're shocked to find a wooden altar and rows of chairs instead of dissected engines. Pink curtains over the windows. Sun-faded devotional plaques collected from thrift shops. Cary says the voice of God guided him in choosing the decorations.

He started Cary's Auto Repair five years ago in this space just off Hull Street, after hypertension forced him to take early retirement from his job as a mechanic with the city. One day, Cary says, he was working inside a van parked in the garage when he collapsed.

"Lord, if you just let me get out of here and get some help, I'll do whatever you want me to do," he prayed over and over. Cary drifted in and out of consciousness, sometimes hearing customers at the door but unable to rise. Two days passed. He called out again: "Lord, you are the only help I have." Then a change came over him. "I raised up," Cary says. "I had strength I didn't have." He staggered to the door and opened it to find his wife, Dawn, who had come looking for him. He was saved.

And his life changed, he says. He quit the auto business. His blood pressure subsided. And Cary became a minister and mentor to children.

Once, he'd thought of kids as a nuisance, especially when they threw rocks and sticks at his shop. "All of a sudden, it came to me," he says. "Those kids were just doing that for attention." The neighborhood bordering Hull Street is a tough place to grow up, he says. He's seen dealers bribe kids with a Coke to carry drugs down the street. The young needed someone to look out for them.

So Cary started taking children to school when they missed the bus. Last summer, he organized a free day-care program with meals provided by the city department of parks and recreation.

And he started Promises of God Ministry, which grew from 10 chairs in his living room to the spacious sanctuary in his auto shop. In two years, he says, he has turned the rock throwers into gospel singers. How has a man of 50 convinced children that church is cool? "I don't push God on 'em," Cary says. "I don't push God in 'em. I just want them to have the opportunity to know who he is."

On a Sunday morning, all is hushed outside Promises of God. But right at 11, exuberant noise explodes inside and shakes the old garage door.

Bam! ba Bam! ba Bam! go the drums. "Can't nobody do like Jesus …", children's voices chorus. Toddlers to teenagers, they stand in front and sing with a recorded gospel song while parents and Cary beam with pride. Terence Whitaker, 11, whacks the drums ($26 from Goodwill, Cary says), while 9-year-old Devance Johnson pounds the organ ($33). When the song ends, Devance walks back to his seat panting and wiping the sweat from his face.

"We're serving a lively God, and he wants a lively people," Cary says. Coached patiently by Cary's 15-year-old son Darryl, the choir of 10 sings more songs, swaying and clapping. They leap up and down on one chorus, shouting "Je-sus! Je-sus! Je-sus!" like a team cheering its star player. They praise-dance with surprisingly precise choreography, stepping in unison and running in circles around the rows of teal and marigold chairs.

There's a rush on the water fountain when Cary starts his sermon. ("Hold off on going to the bathroom," he tells them. "If you have to, we'll understand.")

He begins with Mark 10:14 "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God."

For small urban ministries, survival isn't simple. "End of last year, every other place was a little storefront," Ross says. Now, many have perished — she has noticed three recently gone in the 1700 block alone.

How do these tiny churches pay rent? For heat? For Bibles? Every minister says the same thing: Ask, and ye shall receive. God provides.

Offerings are essential, and honored. At Ross' church, all hold their dollar bills aloft for a blessing before coming forward to drop them in the collection basket. Donations bring in $4,000 monthly, Ross says, of which $1,500 goes to maintain the church. The rest goes into a fund for future needs. She takes no salary, she says, but receives a small stipend monthly.

Running Promises of God costs $1,200 per month, including the mortgage. Cary pays most of it, from his salary as a residential specialist at an adult home and his wife's salary from cashiering for Chesterfield County.

Rent and expenses at Mt. Moriah add up to $700 per month, about half of which Lewis pays from his salary. He avows his church "never sold chicken dinners" to get instruments, stereo equipment or anything else. "The Lord has just blessed us," Lewis says. Fortunately, because "nobody wants to give to a storefront community."

He explains that "they think we're a bunch of money hogs, or rebellious preachers that come from other churches." When the holiness movement started, he says, some ministers used their congregations to support themselves — "they were basically robbing the people."

The first storefront churches were known for their strong and charismatic pastors, Professor Dexter says. Leading a storefront church wasn't a good way to get rich, because most members had little money to give, but ministers could gain great power in the community. Some congregations would "revere [the pastor] in an extreme way… like a demigod," she says.

Not here, Lewis says. The ministers he knows on Hull Street "are gen-u-ine. They just love to see people get it right."

Jesse Lewis' business is supervising deliveries — milk to Chesterfield County schools, doughnuts to 7-Elevens. His real work is deliverance.

Lewis, 48, has the energy of a man half his age. Most days he begins work at 4 a.m., referees high school and college sports in the afternoons, and then heads to church.

Mt. Moriah's sanctuary is warm and still this Wednesday evening, before the weekly Bible study. A warm smell of coffee with hazelnut creamer wafts from Lewis' tiny office. The Canton Spirituals, a gospel group, sing on a small stereo. Outside, cars rush through the rain.

Missed a good service last Sunday, he says. Two people got baptized. "One lady is a backslider," he says, who has come to church off and on for years. "One lady's brand new. She was just bubbling over with joy."

The congregation includes many children and families, but Lewis also preaches tough love to troubled souls on Hull Street. "We don't use trickery," he says. "We just use the word." And he keeps his message simple. "I could stand here and tighten my collar and use my theological words," he says, but the fact is, fancy sermons are lost on minds once blurred and tarred with drugs. So he hammers in his sermons, until "all of a sudden, that light will pop on."

Lewis tells his congregants, "Come to Christ, you got to give up something" — just as he had to abandon his old habits of "drinking and drugging and street-chasing" before he became a minister.

The message discourages many, and they disappear. Lewis regards empty seats with equanimity. "They'll come back. I got confidence," he says. "These people have to have somewhere to go. And that's what this church is here for."

Lewis founded Greater Mt. Moriah Evangelistic Church five years ago when he returned to his native Richmond from Atlanta. There, he says, he saw a number of Christian interracial couples who felt uneasy attending church together. A black man was shunned at a predominantly white church, for instance, yet when his white girlfriend attended a black church, "sisters treated her cruel."

Witnessing this troubled Lewis. He prayed and fasted, he says, and received word from God that he should start his own church.

The first service, held in his home, was attended by five: Lewis, his wife and daughter, and one interracial couple they knew. Now, the congregation numbers 80. Nearly half its members are members of interracial couples. "We took off," he says, "and this is what we have now."

A vinyl banner over the door is all that marks this old store space as a church. Inside, the place is bright, carpeted in deep blue and lush with silk flowers. A drum set and keyboard stand near the front.

Lewis' small office is on the left. Here he hangs his two church robes — one black, one maroon — and keeps church records. "One woman said, 'I'm going to bless you with a computer," he says. And lo, a PC sits on the desk, the words "Jesus Loves You" bouncing around the screen.

The adjacent storefront, formerly a beauty parlor, now serves as the dining room for the church's monthly community meals. Church families paired up to buy each of the six $50 folding tables. Every one is graced with a vase of purple silk roses.

Tonight," Lewis says, "we're teaching a great lesson we just started. Self-will. Self-will vs. God's will." Around 7 p.m., the first church members enter. They chat about recipes for sweet-and-sour meatballs, praying with Sister Adams, working out in the wintertime. Everyone addresses Lewis as "Pastor" and his wife as "First Lady," even though most of those here tonight are family. The youngest is Lewis' 1-year-old niece Desiree, who toddles through the aisles while the pastor speaks.

The audience murmurs "Mmm-hmmm" and "Praise God," as Lewis talks about the danger of envying your neighbor's house, or the Lincolns parked outside other churches. An "old broken-down hooptie" will get you to your destination as surely as a brand-new car, he tells his congregation.

Of course, a little money would help Mt. Moriah, Lewis has said. "We have a long way to go. There's nobody in the church rich." Yet ask him what the church needs right now, and he pauses to think.

Some new paint, a new wallpaper border, he finally says. Not much. God will provide.

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