Pilgrim Baptist Church
Alderwoman Pat Dowell told the Crusader December 8 she is preparing to take action against Pilgrim Baptist Church after church officials failed to respond to a 90-day deadline to come up with a plan for the former building’s remains on the corner of 33rd and Indiana. Residents have been fighting with the historic church for nearly a decade and have complained about trash accumulating on the property, safety concerns about the remaining walls collapsing and the sidewalks and alley adjacent to the structure being closed.
“I will be sending the city a letter Jan. 1 asking for the sidewalks to be returned to the residents,” Dowell told Crusader exclusively. “I talked to them [Pilgrim officials] but I don’t have a plan or strategy from them for what they would like to do with that property given that they are not going to rebuild the church.”
The GAP Community organization has been trying to work with Pilgrim officials for years to seek a resolution to the problems with limited success. GAP President Leonard McGhee has maintained the organization’s position over the last 18 months has been strictly the sidewalk issue. His recent public comments on the issue have struck the same tone on the issue.
“We’re not trying to tell them what to do with their property. We just want our sidewalks back,” he said during a GAP meeting in July.
Dowell had met with Pilgrim officials earlier this year and was optimistic things could change. She was disappointed when they could not come up with a plan after agreeing to have one after being given a 90-day deadline that expired at the end of October.
“I think it is a complicated issue,” Dowell said. “You have a church with a dwindling population and it is probably going to cost a lot of money to do anything there. They probably have to figure out who they can partner and work with and that takes time. But the community has been patient enough and so have I and it is time we return the sidewalk to the community.”
The church, which is credited with being the birthplace of gospel music, was destroyed by fire in January of 2006. Workers who were repairing the roof caused the blaze. The workers fled the scene and were never heard from again.
Since that time, allegations of financial misbehavior on the part of Pilgrim deacons and board trustees have come from several current and former Pilgrim members and rumors have swirled throughout the community that the insurance money was spent and donated monies for the rebuilding fund were allegedly being used for daily operation costs. Unsubstantiated accusations that the money was stolen by trustees and deacons and used for personal purchases of vacations, cars, trips to the casino and other luxury items have also been rumored throughout the years.
It is estimated that tens of thousands of dollars of donations poured into the church from around the country in the immediate months and years after the fire but how much exactly is an answer only a few know and they are not telling. In 2014 Crusader asked Trustee Cynthia Jones how much money the church received in donations and how much money the church had in its current operating budget.
“We don’t divulge our finances,” Jones replied.
The church also had an insurance policy in which a source with knowledge of the situation said was worth at least a million dollars. But no reconstruction of the original building ever took place and Pilgrim officials have been defensive and resistant to tell how much money the church really has when Crusader and other media outlets have inquired. As of 2014 Jones said the current membership was fewer than 100 as services are held across the street from the original building. Members have also been kept in the dark, which has prompted one member, Isaac Whitman to file suit against the church in an attempt to get the financial records for the past 10 years released.
One of Whitman’s suits was dismissed by Cook County Judge Sophia Hall on Nov. 23 for technical reasons. A separate suit that was filed against former Deacon Board Chairman Alfonso Carrington, who had barred Whitman from the church premises and a deacon board meeting, was dismissed as well on Dec. 1 by Judge Anna Demacopoulos. In both cases Whitman represented himself. Whitman tells Crusader he is meeting with a lawyer this time around and plans to file an appeal in both chancery court cases.
“Barring me from the church is a violation of my Civil Rights,” Whitman told Crusader this week. “I’m going through the appeal process now. They [Pilgrim officials] are just really trying to keep people off their ass. But it’s too late for that.”
The Crusader will continue to follow this story as it develops.