CHICAGO—A South Side church in Bronzeville’s Grand Boulevard community that was the launching pad of Operation Rainbow/PUSH, the United Negro College Fund, hosted the funeral of legendary singer Sam Cook, was visited by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, and welcomed major Nation of Islam events, now faces an uncertain future.
Due to much needed repairs, the church halted in-person services and began worship services online. The sight of dumpsters stationed outside the premises at 4134 S. Indiana Ave. sparked fears of a possible demolition. Church leaders began unraveling a court battle over ownership between a lender, Eagle Ledge Foundation, and Chicago Title Land Trust.
They also reached out to the Coalition of Black House Museums and Preservation Chicago, founded by businesswoman Sajdah Muhammad, seeking help in getting the church landmark status.
Rev. Dr. Louis Rawls, an influential minister, civil rights leader and entrepreneur, established Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in 1941 when he purchased the property from the Little Company of Mary Sisters. The residence at 4130 S. Indiana dates back to the 1890s.
Collaborating with renowned architect Homer G. Sailor, homebuilder Matthew Goodwin and J. Edgar Hodges, head of the Brotherhood Club of Black Bricklayers in 1945, Rev. Rawls conceptualized the church at 4134 S. Indiana Ave. situated adjacent to and interconnected to the previous acquisition.
Rev. Rawls, instrumental in the founding of the Chicago Baptist Institute and the Illinois Baptist State Convention, also held positions on various boards, including the NAACP, the National Association of Evangelists, and the National Religious Broadcasters of America. His ministry, spanning 58 years, impacted over 23,000 individuals within the community.
Other major projects Rawls managed was the Brown-Rawls Funeral Home and the spearheading of the creation of the Willa Rawls Manor, a center for affordable senior living north of the church. Witnessing the healthcare disparities faced by Black Americans, he initiated the establishment of Tabernacle Community Hospital and Health Center at 5421 S.
Morgan Avenue, marking the inception of the first Black religious institution to own and operate a hospital. Dedicated to education, Dr. Rawls pursued and earned eight degrees during his lifetime.
Another important factor is the church was built according to specifications explained in the Book of Exodus, explained Rev. John Wesley Moore, an early member of the church.
Additionally, Rev. Rawls had a special and unique relationship with the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Eternal Leader of the Nation of Islam. “They were brothers. They lived right next door to each other. They shared the same driveway.” The Nation of Islam even held one or two Savior’s Day events at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church.
“The two were next door neighbors for years until Rev. Rawls sold his home at 4855 S. Woodlawn Ave. to Elijah Muhammad,” said Rev. Moore.
“Owning, preserving, and monetizing our history is of paramount significance,” said Sajdah Muhammad, who is also proprietor of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad House Museum. “The preservation of urban historical sites holds immense value. Our history faces the peril of extinction.”
“We want to help preserve the legacy of Rev. Dr. Rawls. We want to make sure that his life’s work does not disappear through the course of gentrification,” said Ms. Muhammad.
Ward Miller, the Richard H. Driehaus executive director of Preservation Chicago, emphasizes the quest to identify avenues for conserving and designating the church as a landmark. “Our primary goal is to ascertain the appropriate channels for safeguarding and designating this church as a landmark,” asserts Mr. Miller. “Dr. Rawls’ indelible imprint on Chicago and the entire nation is undeniable. The time has come to enshrine this legacy with the protections befitting Tabernacle.”
“We’ve seen so many people, some out of this church,” said Rev. Moore. “Jerry Butler, Eddie Thomas, A.C. Green, Harold Bailey, and many more.
Dr. Rawls and his wife, Willa “Baby” Rawls, extended their family by adopting three sons, among them the Grammy-winning recording artist Lou Rawls, Rev. Julius Rawls, and Rev. Samuel Rawls.