It’s a Sunday evening at the First Church of Deliverance, an Art Deco stunner at 4315 South Wabash Avenue, and the only thing rivaling the building’s impressive décor is the size of the choir. As the service begins, 200 or so robed singers lift their voices in unison for “Jesus Is on the Mainline,” a decades-old hymn recorded by everyone from the bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell to Ben Harper. They sing with mounting intensity over several minutes, as if never intending to let the song go.
The many strains of Chicago gospel—big choir numbers, vocalist solos, small-group refrains—are all represented in this single service, which starts around 7 p.m. and runs about an hour. When the choir isn’t in the spotlight, it rumbles underneath the sermon of Pastor Otto Houston, accenting the breaks in his speech and punctuating particularly relevant moments. “The devil is nervous tonight,” he says. “I declare to you tonight the devil is a liar, and he’s the father of liars!”
Gospel has been at the front and center of services here for decades, but music historians usually cite Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville as the place where gospel music began. Thomas Dorsey, a blues pianist and composer, coined the term in 1930 to describe the sanctity of church spirituals blending with the fiery power of rhythm and blues. “The foundation of gospel is here. Chicago is where it all started,” says L. Stanley Davis, a gospel historian and one of the originators of the city’s gospel music festival, held each June.
A 2006 fire silenced the music at Pilgrim Baptist, where Dorsey directed a choir that featured appearances by Mahalia Jackson, but you can still hear its strains throughout the city: for instance, at Destiny Worship Center, a complex that covers the entire block of 5510–14 West Chicago Avenue. Here, the music veers toward the modern. A small praise chorale sings pop-oriented spirituals to the sounds of electronic keyboards, drums, and bass. Losing his voice during a recent Sunday service, Pastor DeAndre Patterson preaches through a combination of singing and speaking, all while an organ provides interludes during beats in his speech. “If I lose everything I have, I still have God—I have enough to start all over again,” he says.
On this night, a busload of visitors from a sister parish in New Orleans fills the pews. The guest preacher takes the microphone and testifies to the strength of Chicago’s gospel churches. He should know—this is the fifth service they’ve attended that day. “We’ve been dancing and shouting so much we haven’t eaten,” he says. “What you have in Chicago, we’re gonna bring home.”
Photography by Chris Strong