Chicago church that served public housing residents closes its doors

It was a coincidence that the church calendar called for white vestments and altar decorations on Sunday, but Rev. Edie Lenz would have used them anyway.

"The liturgical color for Trinity Sunday is white, but it's also the color for funerals," she says.

For the last six years Lenz has been pastor at the Church of the Good News, at 2157 W. Wellington Avenue near Lathrop Homes. The church has been entwined with the public housing development since it began in one of the homes there in the 1960s. It has ministered, spiritually and materially, to Lathrop residents and the surrounding neighborhood for 41 years.

Those years came to an end Sunday, and many church members wept as if witnessing a family funeral.

The Reformed Church of America announced the closure in February, the result of a study last fall assessing the region's 13 churches. The denomination can no longer afford to prop up a church which has never been self-supporting, particularly as the size of its congregation has shrunk over the last decade in conjunction with Lathrop's.

About 10 to 15 percent of the congregation has always come from Lathrop, Lenz says. In her six-year tenure, the development's population dropped from approximately 650 families to 175 as the Chicago Housing Authority has enacted the Plan for Transformation, a massive effort to rehab certain public housing developments and replace others with communities that mix public, affordable and market-rate housing.

Part of the plan involved cracking down on lease violations and giving residents housing vouchers to use anywhere in Chicago. Lots of residents moved away from Lathrop, including several church leaders.

At the same time, the surrounding area gentrified. Lenz used to look out her office window and see a vacant field and a laundry. Now she sees condos.

"The primary population that we have served and that we do serve is that of Lathrop Homes," Lenz says. "That is who we still are, and that is not who our neighborhood is anymore."

The church, which combines worship with a strong sense of social justice, has actively opposed that neighborhood change. When a longtime local business relocated to the suburbs, the church joined others in the community to block a developer's push for condos. Eventually, Costco moved to the Clybourn Avenue site, providing jobs for people living nearby.

Lenz also sits on the Lathrop Leadership Team, a coalition that has proposed a vision for the area which differs from the CHA's plan for a mixed-income community. The team wants to eliminate market-rate housing from the plan, contending the neighborhood already has plenty.

The church also provides office space to the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, a DePaul University mental health center and the local branch of a national Christian program for teenagers. The organizations will probably stay in the church building through June, Lenz said.

In the wake of the closure, other organizations may take over some of the church's social service functions. But Lenz says she doesn't know who or what will replace the spiritual direction and connection that Good News offered to residents for decades.

"That will be a big loss for folks," she says. "This has been the community church. I've done funerals for people I've never met, but who claim this is their place of worship. They never set foot in this place for a Sunday morning worship service, but this is their church."

Lathrop resident Lillyana Sanchez, 21, has been a member of the church her entire life.

"The community comes here if they want to talk, if they have problems," Sanchez says. "If they need anything, this is where they come."

Some churchgoers continue to return to Good News even after they've moved elsewhere. For the last year former Lathrop resident Ethel Hodges has left her home at 52nd Street and Damen Avenue at 10:30 a.m. for the weekly 11 a.m. service. She doesn't know where she'll go now. Perhaps to the church across the street from where she lives.

Lathrop resident Sandra Cornwell isn't sure where she'll go either. She says she came to the church 21 years ago feeling unworthy of God. She'd never gone to services regularly, but suddenly "it seemed I couldn't stop going to church."

"It was a church that accepted you for where you were," she says.

For the final service Lenz invited back as many people as she knew how to reach. On Sunday about 60 people filled the sanctuary. They passed a box of tissues from hand to hand through the aisles, straining through their grief to celebrate the church's life.

"I learned from people in Lathrop that life can be really difficult, really tough … and yet humanity and a sense of humor can be maintained," the Rev. Al Heystek, a former Good News minister, told the congregation. "The legacy of this church is beyond words, and I can feel it right now looking at you. This has been a powerful place. And you carry it. You carried it then, and you carry it now."