Songs of the South
Get into the spirit year-round at these South Side churches
Gospel music was born in the early 1930s when Thomas Dorsey, a blues musician—turned—choir director, blended blues and jazz with traditional spirituals and hymns and served it up to congregations on the South Side. It thrives there still, embraced by mass choirs and smaller ensembles at both historic and modern churches.
While the music is theatrical, bear in mind these aren't concert halls: Show proper respect and dress up. But the church officials we spoke to welcome all. "God said, 'Come as you are,'" says Arnold Sevier, Pilgrim Baptist Church's musical director. "He didn't exclude anyone because of race, sex or any other orientation."
Ebenezer Baptist Church
4501 S Vincennes Ave, 773-373-6144
Gospel's roots start here. It was at Ebenezer Baptist that Dorsey, with fellow composers Theodore Roosevelt Frye and Magnolia Lewis Butts, formed the first four-part, mixed-choral gospel choir in 1931.
While the congregation is smaller today, those traditional harmonies can still be heard on Sundays during the 11am service when Ebenezer's earnest choir performs such gospel standards as "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "The Lord Will Make a Way."
Pilgrim Baptist Church
3301 S Indiana Ave, 312-842-4417
Gospel music fully flowered in 1932 at this Romanesque Revival landmark (designed in 1890 as a synagogue by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler) when Dorsey became Pilgrim Baptist's choir director, a position he held until his death in 1993. It was in 1932, after the death of his wife and child in childbirth, that he wrote the most famous gospel song of all time, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." Throughout his 61 years at Pilgrim Baptist, Dorsey helped shape the voices and recording careers of legendary singers like Sallie Martin, JamesCleveland and Mahalia Jackson.
Five of the 30 members in today's choir sang under Dorsey, and they still perform his classic songs Sundays during the 11am service.
Greater Salem Missionary Baptist Church
215 W 71st St, 773-874-2325
Although she's associated with Pilgrim Baptist and Dorsey, with whom she began collaborating in 1939, Mahalia Jackson honed her craft at Greater Salem Baptist Church, where she remained a lifelong member from the late 1930s until her death in 1972.
Many churches initially rejected her singing style. "They did not appreciate her jazzing up 'Amazing Grace' or some of those older songs they were so familiar with," says Runae Hartfield, Greater Salem's minister of music. "She wasn't always accepted with open arms."
Jackson may be gone, but visitors can still enjoy inspiring music by Greater Salem's five choirs on Sundays at 11am. "We do sing some contemporary songs," Hartfield says, "but our church is basically old-fashioned gospel."
First Church of Deliverance4315 S Wabash Ave, 773-373-7700
Designed in 1939 by Chicago's first African-American architect, Walter Bailey, First Church of Deliverance was among the first black churches to broadcast its sermon and to fire up its choir with a Hammond organ.
The organ still figures into its 11am service on Sundays, during which lead vocalists are often asked by Bishop Otto T. Houston III to perform songs on the spot.
Salem Baptist Church
11800 S Indiana Ave, 773-371-2300
Boasting one of the best choral programs in the city, Salem Baptist pumps up its huge congregation Sundays at noon with eight large choirs, from youth to senior ensembles. Choir director Walter Owens recently added a young-adult choir numbering more than 175 members. With its new-school melodies, this group keeps church-goers on their feet, as does the 150-member main choir, while the Rev. (and state senator) James Meeks delivers his sermon.
Apostolic Faith Church
3823 S Indiana Ave, 773-373-8500
There's a reason why the Apostolic Faith Church Mass Choir is performing at 6:20pm Saturday 4 at Gospel Fest: Their powerful sound will fill the Pritzker Pavilion like a symphony orchestra. If you like what you hear, get a second helping during 11:30am Sunday services at this 90-year-old church's modern home, built in 1987.
Sweet Holy Spirit Church
944 W 103rd St and 8621 S South Chicago Ave, 773-233-4477
No preacher gets into the spirit of the music as much as Bishop Larry Trotter, who's recorded four albums with Sweet Holy Spirit's choir (2001's Tell the Devil I'm Back earned a spot on the Billboard gospel-music charts).
Visitors can enjoy performances by Trotter's polished choral ensembles at 9:30am at both of the church's locations, and at 11:30am at its South Chicago Avenue location.