Urban Village Church and the most segregated hour in America
“Eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.”
It’s a provocative statement, but Jerome Adams quotes Martin Luther King Jr.’s line on the racial divide in American Christianity as a matter of fact. “White parishioners are in their churches, black parishioners are in their churches.”
There’s a palpable dejection to his voice, but it’s a subject that he can speak on with authority. Growing up in Bronzeville, Adams saw firsthand the ways in which the makeup of a neighborhood can dictate the makeup of a congregation. Regardless of how it’s interpreted, the fact is that there are no “white churches” in Bronzeville.
Adams is a member of Urban Village Church in Hyde Park–Woodlawn, the newest branch of a citywide chain of evangelical churches. Founded in 2010, Urban Village is officially a Methodist church, though one pastor at the Hyde Park–Woodlawn church is Presbyterian, and the other is Baptist. Unlike most other multiple-location churches, Urban Village identifies as theologically progressive, open to members with different backgrounds and different beliefs. The new location—a rented room in the Chicago Theological Seminary’s building at 60th and Dorchester—is meant to be an outgrowth of that commitment to diversity.
Open since mid-March, Urban Village might seem like another church in a neighborhood already full of churches, poised to capture the depth of religious sentiment that exists in this particular stretch of the city. The church is, however, determined to set itself apart from the regimented, traditional ways in which Christianity is practiced elsewhere on the South Side. Its relentless modernity and message of inclusivity signal a rebuke to old churches with old ways of engaging with the wider world. This is an evolution to which Jerome Adams has held a front-row seat. The story of change in his personal life is inextricable from the story of how Urban Village intends to change the complexion of Christianity in this neighborhood.
Jerome Adams grew up attending the First Church of Deliverance, a landmark African-American church at 43rd and Wabash. Founded in 1929 by Reverend Clarence H. Cobbs, the church ordained one of the first female pastors in the city and prided itself on a choir that was quietly accepting of gay members. During the Civil Rights Movements, Deliverance was involved in a loose political confederation that crossed neighborhood and denominational lines. Adams is proud of this: growing up in the sixties, his church was a politically engaged and connected institution. Voting in city and national elections was an expectation, and Adams remembers his congregation as being so diverse that prosperous congregants in fur coats and big hats could be seen alongside more modestly dressed working-class parishioners, each helping to run the church’s nursing home and soup line.
But somewhere along the line, the neighborhood began to change, and the church followed suit. The place that was once economically diverse and politically engaged had latched on to the gospel of prosperity—a line of theology which stresses the accumulation of personal wealth over issues of social justice—while the church’s own finances fell into the red. Membership dwindled and as the congregation aged, a once healthy commitment to addressing inequality turned anemic.
For Adams, the shifts in his church’s mission were felt on a visceral and personal level. While he was still a high school student at King Prep in the late sixties, he began to develop ambiguous feelings about his sexuality. As it turned out, the church became his source of support, though not in a way one might expect. “There were a lot of gay people in the church, although not always open, seldom open. Once some of the older gay people in the church found out that I was probably gay, a few of them took me under their wing and, more or less, started me on the road to partying and going out to the more gay-friendly clubs.”
This murky intersection between his church life and his sexual identity reached its crest when Adams was approached by his pastor, the politically influential Reverend Clarence Cobbs. “It never got to be a sexual encounter, but he was offering to pay for my schooling and all of that,” Adams recalled. “When I refused and went to my parents with that, everything kind of blew up. And that summer I up and left.” He bounced around a string of colleges, ended up in New York, and ditched his faith. A drinking habit turned into an addiction, drugs became a problem, and in the mid-eighties he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
I met Adams at 10:30 on a Sunday morning in March, the day Urban Village opened its doors inside the Seminary. To think of Adams as a man who had once forsaken his religion, been broken and weakened by drugs and alcohol, is almost impossible. On the day of Urban Village’s South Side opening, Adams gave his personal testimony. He seemed to fill the whole room with his strength as he spoke about his personal struggles, his voice taking on a lilting yet commanding quality.
The modern and tasteful room where the congregation meets at the Chicago Theological Seminary represents the church’s first foray southward, after initial locations in Wicker Park, Andersonville, and the Loop. That migration means more than just finding a nicely-furnished, well-lit room, because entering Chicago’s South Side is critical to the way Urban Village views itself: as a place where religion is an inclusive pursuit.
This starts from the very top. In contrast to congregations like First Church of Deliverance, where Reverend Cobbs was treated as a religious celebrity, the pastors of Urban Village reject any notion of formality, rarely referring to themselves as “Reverend.” Senior Pastor Emily McGinley, a young and petite Asian-American woman with an infectious sense of optimism, dresses more like a graduate student in jeans and leather boots, eschewing the traditional ceremony usually associated with leading an institution like the church. And on Easter Sunday, Worship Pastor Zach Mills delivered a moving and distinctly nontraditional sermon in jeans, a sport coat, and a tie—a far cry from the all-white suit and clerical garb that Reverend Cobbs famously donned at his services.
Even the room itself, looking out toward the University of Chicago from the building’s fourth floor, seems like a deviation from Christian orthodoxy. There’s no pulpit, no pews, and no organ. (A piano, drum kit, and rockin’ trio of singers make up the church’s “choir.”) Bibles are bring-your-own. It all fits into Urban Village’s wider mission of “doing church differently,” as Adams described it to me. The tagline appears on stickers around Hyde Park, heads each service’s program, and pops up again in Sunday morning introductions. Simple, almost catchy, it’s a phrase that stands firm and defiant against the prevailing state of religion in Chicago.
Phrases like “doing church differently,” “remixing faith,” and “radical hospitality” are repeated consistently throughout Sunday’s worship like mantras, sometimes even like prayers. Congregations, the church believes, must be radical in their acceptance of others and open and affirming in their leadership, in their sermons, and in their commitments to justice, equality, and diversity.
But how does this play out on 60th Street, at the south end of Hyde Park’s multicultural and liberal reach? Surely, in a spiritual landscape as diverse as the South Side, there are numerous open and progressive churches in opposition to those that stick to the prosperity gospel and which are explicit in their rejection of gay and lesbian Christians.
McGinley and Adams would disagree. For Adams, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” sentiment that echoed through the history of the First Church of Deliverance was not enough. Silent, shameful acceptance was not enough to help him through his battle with addiction and disease.
As McGinley confidently stated, “We try especially to be a space where LGBTQ people of color can have a space to worship, and not have to check either their racial identity or their sexual orientation at the door. They can bring all of who they are and not feel ashamed about any of that.”
By the end of April, Adams and McGinley hope to establish a small workshop addressing issues around “cultural competency” and LGBTQ issues. “We need to understand the language. There’s such a lack of understanding of language around and within the gay culture. And that would be something that’s open to the entire congregation,” Adams explained. “That’s where healing begins, especially for people who have come out of situations where they’ve been hurt by the church.” It’s part of an effort that rests jointly on the entire congregation and small groups of individuals, in which decrees of openness and acceptance must be actively translated to the individual sitting in the pew.
Multiculturalism, too, stands as a primary force in Urban Village’s move to the South Side. McGinley worked at the McCormick Seminary on an initiative called the Common Ground Project, striving to support religious leaders of color. Worship Pastor Zach Mills, whose background ranges from print journalism and scholarly bylines to teaching homiletics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, also works for the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Teaching, empowering African-American ministers to engage thoughtfully with Chicago politics.
“So the vision was initially to be intentionally multiracial,” said Reverend McGinley, “and to have church leadership that reflected that commitment.” Urban Village’s other three locations are rooted in predominantly white neighborhoods and, as McGinley described, many parishioners of color were raising questions about what inclusivity really meant. What does it mean to say that you’re inclusive, and to say that inclusivity involves racial diversity, while your congregation remains predominantly white, rooted in predominantly white neighborhoods? How does that work?
McGinley, then, saw a move southward as a logical way to assuage those concerns. “So it really was an intentional decision to say that we really want to live what we say we are.” “Intentional” is one of McGinley’s words; she throws it around carefully, but often. There is a sense that, for her, if inclusivity and diversity are not intentional, they can be easily lost.
The intense segregation of Chicago presents a challenge for a church that seeks to be intentionally multicultural, community focused, and theologically progressive all at once. It’s not just the hour of church that’s segregated in Chicago; the city’s churches remain largely dived along the lines of race, neighborhood, and denomination. As Adams explains, the neighborhood segregation of Chicago, enforced by binding racial covenants on real estate, confined black residents to black churches in the early twentieth century. As real estate opened up and neighborhoods became sharply divided by class and race, churches on the South Side stayed largely split along the historic color line. And McGinley acknowledges this. “The lines are strict,” she remarks, with a steely hint of resolution. The challenge of segregation is embedded in her mission. Space must be built rather than expected; it must be intentionally created and carved out on corners like 60th and Dorchester so that people are able to bear first-hand witness to the benefits of inclusivity.
This inclusivity extends beyond race, of course. The congregation runs the gamut in terms of age, socioeconomic background, and education. And just as the leadership is inter-denominational, so too are the congregants. “We’ve got folks who come from Catholic, Episcopalian, very high church backgrounds,” said McGinley, “and then folks who come from Pentecostal, charismatic congregations.”
The people who come to Urban Village are people like Adams, and like McGinley herself. People who have been burned by the church, who have questions that other congregations refuse to answer, who claim identities that other institutions deem unacceptable. The crowd that assembled that first day at the site on 60th was shocking in its visible racial diversity. On one row alone, a mixed-race family sat alongside a trio of older black men, the three of whom who sat next to a young black couple and an Asian man.
As Adams said of that first day, “Though I had been attending the Loop location and the diversity was there to an extent, it was oh so overwhelmingly apparent on the day of the Hyde Park launch. And for me,” he continued, his voice breaking just slightly with emotion, “that’s what I imagine Heaven will be like.”
That’s a tall order. And yes, the vision of Urban Village sounds a bit utopian. But the vision is enacted slowly, in ways as simple and direct as a powerful line in an Easter sermon. In keeping with Urban Village’s promise of relevancy, Zach Mills spoke boldly of to the issues impacting the Woodlawn community; “These troubling narratives whisper brazenly in our ears that little six-month girls will continue to be killed by stray bullets in gang shootings in our community. And that corrupt political powers will continue their unjust practices of profiling and arresting and unfairly convicting thirty-year-old men of color in Englewood and in the backwaters of Nazareth.” These narratives are troubling, yes, but Mills ended confidently.
“Our world is full of narratives and stories that try to convince us that we can never experience anything more that we have already experienced.” The ideal of a multiracial, inclusive church is difficult to affect in an area historically dominated by all-black churches. But this is radical hospitality where it is most needed, and there is hope for heaven.