Some Former Members Try to Save Church From Demolition

Mar 05, 2003 07:03 PM EST

CHICAGO — Inside the red stone church, the wooden pews are empty now. The pipe organ that once filled the sanctuary with music is idle. The years of Christmas celebrations, when lighted trees and a sea of poinsettias stirred the excitement of children and adults alike, are a memory, and so are the countless baptisms, weddings and Sunday services in the 113-year-old building now scheduled for demolition.

Johnie Richardson, the former pastor's wife, and about 100 former members and neighborhood residents have staved off the wrecking ball for more than a year, hoping and praying that they will be able to save the Met, as they call the church, the Metropolitan Community Church.

The current pastor, the Rev. Leon Perry III, has made clear his intentions to tear down the building nestled in a neighborhood known as Bronzeville on Chicago's South Side and build a more modern church. The dissenting members, who left the congregation last fall after Mr. Perry moved services to a high school, have made clear their intentions to save their church.

"It's very important to us. It was a part of our lives," Mrs. Richardson said. "The black church has been a very vital part of our culture. The black church is as much a part of us as our own homes."

Patricia Johnson Winston said, "If you have any kind of spiritual awareness, that is more than just a building."Some say the church's membership, once around 1,200, has dwindled over the years; about 250 people attended services until the controversy began last fall.The dispute has divided the church, separating siblings and parents and children. It intensified on Friday when the Coalition to Save the Met sought a restraining order to prevent removal of church property.

The group says an independent engineer surveyed the property two years ago and found that repairs would cost about $400,000, not the millions of dollars that members say church officials told them.

The group filed a lawsuit last week against Mr. Perry and the church trustees, contending that members had given $145,000 in the first half of 2001 for rehabilitating the church. The pastor and the church board mishandled the money and acted without members' consent in planning to demolish the church, the suit contends.

Mr. Perry said money members gave for rehabilitating the building went for repairs.Today, at Wendell Phillips High School, where the church now meets, Mr. Perry, 43, said the church needed more space for classes and conferences."In addition to that, we were spending more money for the monthly upkeep and still not having the adequate space and adequate needs," Mr. Perry said.The Met is imposing, even without its stained glass windows, which were replaced by plywood in August. The church, a Romanesque three-story structure with a corner tower, was once the First Presbyterian Church. But in 1927, Metropolitan Community Church, which was formed seven years earlier, bought the building and moved in.

Members of the coalition say the church has long been a pillar of the predominantly African-American neighborhood, a center over the years for recreational, fraternal, educational, musical, civic and religious organizations. It has had a long list of noted visitors, including Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, Ida B. Wells, Mahalia Jackson, Sidney Poitier and James Weldon Johnson. Metropolitan was where A. Philip Randolph organized Pullman porters' meetings. Memories abound among members.

"I was there the day or night," Aretha Jackson, 71, recalled. "I can't remember because I was just a little kid, when Eleanor Roosevelt was there and my girlfriend's sister presented roses to her and I was saying, `Oh, I wish I could have done that.' "Mr. Perry said he believed that the former members fighting the demolition are "walking in their conviction," but he added, "I do believe that it has gone beyond where it should have gone."

"The building is not the spirit of this congregation," Mr. Perry said.

Mary Steward, executive director of the Mid-South Planning and Development Corporation and a resident of the Bronzeville neighborhood, said she was against tearing down the church.

"I realize it's a building," Ms. Steward said. "But the history, the things that have gone on. We have too many spaces in this community now where we drive and say, `That's where something used to be.' That's what we're trying to prevent."

By John W. Fountain