Unholy Mess | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Unholy Mess

Good intentions pave the road to court, as a slew of code violations and community resistance stand between an ambitious pastor and his full-steam ahead tactics.


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In 1995 the Reverend Paul Southerland moved his congregation, the Redeeming Church of Christ, into an old funeral home at 67th and Dorchester. He had big plans for the run-down property that surrounded his new church, which he wanted to turn into "a beacon of spiritual prosperity in the west South Shore community." Things aren't going quite as planned.

Southerland, who's 60, had already had a career as a social worker when he went to the University of Chicago Divinity School, graduating in 1978. Answering the call "to work among the economically depressed," he became a pastor in the Bronx, but in the mid-80s he came back to Chicago to work at Redeeming, then located at 69th and Harper. "Being in the Bronx was really challenging," he says, "and I thought coming back to Chicago would provide me with a rest." It didn't.

Redeeming's 350 families face the usual problems of the poor. "We're always trying to find places to live for people who have been dislocated," Southerland says. "Our members' sons and daughters get locked up, and we go to see about that on a regular basis. And wherever our church happens to be, the neighbors around us know that we are going to address problems that afflict them too." When the church moved to 67th and Dorchester, he walked into the bar across the street and told the patrons, "You can either get out or we'll help you get jobs and counseling." In the end, Redeeming bought the bar and turned it into a church dining facility.

Soon after the move the church was offering not just Sunday services and Bible study classes but a city-funded summer lunch program for youngsters, a day camp, and a state-backed energy-assistance program for those unable to pay their utility bills. It also made some repairs on the old funeral parlor, putting on a new roof and adding green awnings.

But Southerland also wanted to build a new 800-seat church, with lots of glass to let in light, and a new school building. He wanted to turn the funeral parlor into offices and a social center that would offer, among other things, a baby-sitting service. He even wanted to build condominiums along 67th Street priced at up to $500,000. Between 1999 and 2000, with backing from South Shore Bank, Redeeming acquired property to the east of the church, lined up a construction company, and mapped out a five-year building plan for the $8 million project.

Southerland firmly believed that his alderman's support was critical to the success of the project. "You cannot do anything without the alderman on board," he says. He discussed his plans with Fifth Ward alderman Barbara Holt, just as he'd discussed things with her predecessor, Larry Bloom. Holt was helping Southerland work out a deal in which he would buy from the city the property west of the church, but she was defeated in the April 1999 election.

The new alderman was Leslie Hairston, an attorney who'd questioned Holt's political independence during the campaign. Shortly after Hairston took office, Southerland went to see her. "I wanted to say, 'We're here, and this is what we want to do,'" he says. "I gave her our business plan." He says Hairston interrupted him and said, "You're Barbara Holt's man." He says he'd backed Holt for alderman but hadn't been close to her. He told Hairston, "I'm nobody's man. You're the alderman now, and I have to deal with you."

Hairston says she doesn't remember the conversation and would never have called Southerland a Holt supporter. "Why would I care?" she asks.

Southerland hoped to smooth things over, and early that August he invited Hairston to a community meeting at Redeeming. A promotional booklet handed out at the meeting said that the church's goal was to become "the most comprehensive child care service center available. Very soon the corner of 67th Street and Dorchester will be known as Kid's Korner." The booklet also applauded the church's Hazel Young Academy, a new school for preschoolers through sixth graders that was set to open that September.

Hairston says she was horrified by what she saw inside the church. "There were infants lying on the floor next to exposed electrical sockets. Next to the infants were toddlers lying on air mattresses, and six- to eight-year-olds were lying in the pews. There was a musty smell in the building, like there had been flooding, and it was dark. The hair on my arms stood on end. Children were being jeopardized, and parents needed to be concerned. I reported what I saw [to city officials]."

Southerland says he was trying to tell her about his plans to expand the church. "She kept shaking her head no and said, 'It ain't going to happen.' I just thought we had some convincing to do."

Two weeks later city inspectors began showing up. They cited the church for 26 violations of fire, electrical, and building codes, ranging from not having no-smoking signs and having "rubbish" in the boiler room to having exposed wiring and walls that weren't fire resistant to not having a sprinkler system or institutional fire alarms.

Southerland readily admits the building has problems. "This is an old building, and when we took it over it hadn't been occupied for seven years," he says. "Sure they could find things to write us up about." But he was distressed that Hairston hadn't just told him what she saw and given him a chance to fix things before she called the city.

Southerland began making the repairs, showing up repeatedly in housing court over the next 18 months, without a lawyer, to report on the progress he was making. He noticed that a representative from Hairston's office came to nearly every one of the hearings. Hairston's spokeswoman Maudlyne Ihejirika says that wasn't because the alderman was angry with Southerland. "The mayor of this city has come down strongly against substandard housing," she says. "He has laid down that gauntlet, not the alderman."

Southerland still wanted to move ahead on his expansion plans, and says he began calling Hairston once a month, hoping to get her approval. He says she never returned his calls. She says she never got the calls. He says he's also lobbied everyone from Leon Finney, chairman of the Woodlawn Organization, to Charles Bowen, a mayoral aide assigned to religious issues, to intercede for him, to no avail. "I've contacted many people in the community for help in dealing with her," he says, "and they all say, 'She hates you. She doesn't like your name being brought up.'"

Six months ago Southerland had whittled the list of repairs down, and only two major repairs remained--installing the sprinkler system and the fire alarms. He knew he needed a building permit, so he talked to city officials about getting one. He says he was told he had a bigger problem to attend to first--Redeeming Church sits on a stretch of 67th Street that's zoned for business. "I was told that if I went for a building permit the computer would kick out the application because of the zoning problem," he says. He began asking city officials about changing the zoning, and he added the building permit and the zoning issue to the list of things he wanted to discuss with Hairston.

The repairs hadn't been made when Southerland showed up in court in June, so the judge ordered him to cancel the summer camp, the lunch program, and the energy-assistance program. He also had to close the Hazel Young Academy, which last year enrolled 100 children, most of them boys. Southerland was particularly distressed about the school's closing. "We taught with strict, almost militaristic discipline, giving everyone a strong breakfast and good Christian values," he says. "Our success was unbelievable. Kids who'd been on Ritalin now found they could get off the drug. Boys without social skills were saying 'Yes, ma'am' and 'No, sir.'"

By early August he'd learned that the city had no intention of changing the way the area was zoned, and officials had told him he ought to apply for a special-use permit, which would allow the existing church to stay and the new one to be built. At that point he realized he needed a lawyer who knew about zoning, so he hired Lawrence Kennon, who'd served as chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals under Harold Washington. Kennon points out that one reason the city might not have wanted to change the zoning is that Redeeming happens to be in a Tax Increment Financing district, or TIF--a mechanism designed to spur economic redevelopment in blighted areas--and the area around it was already being developed. "Churches don't bring in business," he says. "People come to a church in their off-hours, and when they leave they don't spend money. Besides, because churches don't pay taxes, their presence in a TIF is perceived as draining the tax base." The city has already sold the plot on 67th that Redeeming wanted to buy for its new church, and it has used its power of eminent domain to buy from Redeeming the old bar across the street, which is to be replaced with a fire station.

After a court appearance that same month, Southerland and the Reverend Paul Jakes, the well-known activist, complained about Hairston to a Chicago Defender reporter. Shortly afterward, Hairston agreed to sit down with Southerland and Jakes in her South Shore office. Southerland says he was late, having learned about the meeting only at the last minute, so Hairston and Jakes started talking without him. "The alderman told me she was concerned about children being at the church, that it was not up to standard," Jakes recalls.

When Southerland finally arrived, an hour later, he asked Hairston to help him get the special-use permit, but she refused. "There is a process that has to be followed," she says now. "He has to make an application for the zoning change. He wants me to approve something without having seen the paperwork. That's backwards, and I won't do it." Yet Kennon says, "The alderman can prevent you from getting a special-use permit and can be a thorn in your side. But once she says she's in favor of it, it practically goes through."

Southerland then asked Hairston to help him in court. "She could say to the judge, 'I will help them get these violations done,'" he says. "I wanted her to direct me, show me the way. She could have moderated in some kind of way with the building permit." He adds, "I wanted her to act as a character witness--aldermen do that all the time."

Hairston was offended. "It would be unethical," she says. She quickly ended the meeting.

Kristen Cabanban, spokeswoman for the Building Department, says Southerland can get a building permit without having a special-use permit. "He can make the repairs today--and we urge him to do it soon," she says. "He doesn't have to wait to go through the zoning process. This is his decision."

On September 25 Hairston scheduled her monthly community meeting at the Evangelist Temple Church of God in Christ, a block from Redeeming, and Southerland decided to protest her appearance there. He sent out a press release beforehand accusing Hairston of trying to close Redeeming and of using "unscrupulous tactics" such as sending building inspectors on "fault finding missions," "obstructing building permits," and "enlisting the aid of the zoning department." It also accused her of opposing the church's energy-assistance program, calling that antagonism "no less than a terrorist siege."

On the day of the meeting Southerland, who still hadn't applied to the city for the special-use permit or the building permit, led 50 picketers to the Evangelist Temple. But its minister had just undergone bypass surgery, so the temple was closed. Southerland offered Redeeming as a substitute meeting site, and Hairston replied, "Reverend Southerland, I'm not going to a church where there are building-code violations." She held the meeting in the street.

Hairston insists she bears Southerland no ill will and isn't opposed to his plan to build a new church. "I have no problem with him expanding," she says. "But when you are endangering the lives of children and you get called on the carpet for it, you must correct things. You can picket me and call all the press conferences you want, but I will always come down on the side of kids."

She scheduled another meeting with Southerland on Tuesday, October 16. Southerland never showed up and couldn't be reached for comment. "It's the norm," she said, and shrugged.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea, Bob Black--Chicago Sun-Times.

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