Chicago Churches Cope With Crumbling Structures

Foundation helps city congregations maintain old buildings that house neighborhood services

THE sprawling stone structure that is Kenwood United Church of Christ stands on a street corner in a gritty south Chicago neighborhood. Across the street is an empty lot; surrounding blocks are dotted with tattered-looking brownstones. Over the past 50 years, the once middle-class residential area has deteriorated into an impoverished section of the city. The church edifice has fallen into disrepair as well.

But the 105-year-old building bustles with activity and has become a beacon to many people in this community over the last decade. Four times a week, its food program serves hot meals to about 200 people daily. A newly built health center provides free medical care to the homeless and jobless. The building hosts after-school programs for youths, and there are plans to add a day-care facility.

As the Kenwood church strives to meet community needs, it faces a problem common to many older urban churches across the United States: a structure that needs maintenance. Confronted with leaky roofs, furnaces that must be replaced, and other mounting repairs, many cash-strapped churches defer maintenance and funnel what money they have into outreach programs.

Some church preservationists are concerned that many of these churches won't be able to keep their buildings functioning. If the structures go, so do the community services.

"This issue is an important one for our cities," says Craig Dykstra, vice president for religion at Lilly Endowment Inc. in Indianapolis. "There is a significant financial crisis in the mainstream Protestant denominations and in the [Roman] Catholic Church. But at the same time financial resources decrease, the needs all around many [urban] churches increase."

So in 1991, Lilly, one of the largest grant-making programs for religious purposes in the country, decided to help churches and synagogues in one city. It formed Inspired Partnerships, a hands-on nonprofit, nondenominational organization in Chicago that finds creative ways for the city's congregations to maintain their houses of worship. A three-year, $1.5-million grant supports the project.

Chicago was chosen as a home for Inspired Partnerships because the city has many older urban churches and the highest concentration of seminaries in the country. But Dr. Dykstra says, "Our hope is that as this experiment plays itself out, other [communities] will learn from it."

Inspired Partnerships is sort of "the Better Business Bureau of churches," says Holly Harrison Fiala, the executive director. It provides clergy and lay people with training in facilities management, assistance in analyzing repair needs, and referrals to reliable professionals. These services are sorely needed: No seminary in the country teaches about property management, yet many clergy become stewards of aging facilities fraught with thousands of dollars worth of problems, Ms. Fiala says.

"When churches talk of stewardship, it's understood to mean the offering plate, not what operating costs are," Fiala says. "Because their mind is only on serving people, they defer maintenance needs.... It's a problem that gets way out of control."

Urban church laity also are burdened with supporting properties that were built for large congregations. As members have moved to suburbs and as neighborhoods have changed, dwindling congregations have been unable to keep up with rising costs.

That was the case with Kenwood United Church of Christ, which was built for 1,500 worshippers and is one of only a few Chicago religious properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When the Rev. Leroy Sanders became pastor in 1980, the structure was so dilapidated that the 25 members recommended to tear it down. Beautiful stained-glass windows were broken and some had been stolen; new roofs were needed. Since then, the mostly black congregation has grown to 370, and a number of repairs

have been made.

Mr. Sanders participated in Inspired Partnerships' Chicago Religious Property Stewardship Program - 11 intensive workshops on church maintenance. "Because of the training we got," he says, "we now understand the different language contractors use." That knowledge has been helpful in hiring a contractor to fix leaks in the roofs. "We learned how to negotiate and not be undersold," he adds.

The church also renovated several rooms after Inspired Partnerships alerted it to the urgency of the work. Although the church said it couldn't afford the $10,000 cost, its leaders learned that "the longer it is put off, the more expensive it becomes, and the more violations you're faced with," Sanders says. Lowering the ceiling in one room helped the church save $60 a month in heating bills. The room now houses a youth program.

Across town on the north side of Chicago, nearly all of the many rooms, nooks, and crannies in the United Church of Rogers Park are used for social services. The 65-year-old church, in an ethnically mixed community, has opened its doors to 32 programs, including Head Start, day care, and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

"We're an anchor for people around here," says Carol English, president of the church board.

But at the same time the congregation has expanded its outreach, it has also been forced to pay more attention to deteriorating parts of its edifice.

One area that requires major restoration is the church's 13 roofs. When members noticed plaster falling from parts of a ceiling, the church turned to Inspired Partnerships. The organization's technical-services coordinator inspected each roof and found that previous repairs had been poorly done. He outlined the problems and set maintenance priorities. He is also helping to evaluate bids on the work.

Such a service is saving them money and time, Ms. English says. The inspection alone, which can run as much as $3,000, cost $500. She is also confident that the work will be done correctly. "If they didn't exist, I don't think I'd want to deal with this," she says.

Since 1991, 65 Chicago congregations have called on Inspired Partnerships for on-site inspections. To qualify for assistance, a church or synagogue must be at least 40 years old and run social programs that cater to the community. A small fee is charged for workshops and inspections. While Inspired Partnerships does not have the money to fund repairs, Fiala hopes to find sources that will provide financing. That, however, is difficult.

"Convincing a lender [that a religious building] is a good risk is a pretty tough argument," she says. Banks consider churches poor collateral and are hesitant to provide loans. And few congregations apply for loans, because they are unfamiliar with the process, have insufficient funds to repay, or don't want to rely on borrowed money.

Those attitudes have to change, Fiala says. She emphasizes the important role houses of worship play by ticking off statistics: One-third of the nation's day-care centers are located in churches or synagogues; 70 percent of the Chicagoans served by outreach programs are not congregation members; and 77 percent of the city's religious buildings house two or more community programs.

"Churches are a stabilizing influence, and that role is not being well articulated," Fiala says. "A church is a place for people to go when no sanctuary is left. You lose that in a neighborhood and you lose a lot."

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