At the heart of Gordon Parks's documentation of African American life was capturing a sense of community, through struggles and triumphs. Parks keenly understood the role of the church within those communities—as evidenced by their presence throughout Parks's work of the 1940s through 1960s. One of Parks’s earliest assignments for Life magazine, however, had a church as its focus: In 1953 Life sent Parks to Chicago to do a story on the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, located at 2151 West Washington Boulevard on the city’s Near West Side.
The story was intended to be a part of a focused series on religion for the magazine. Chicago, with its promise of industrial employment, became a major destination for African Americans fleeing the rural South during the decades of the Great Migration (1915–70). During and in the years that followed the Great Migration, Black churches proliferated in the city—many of them occupying storefront and other former commercial spaces. Across the city’s South and West Sides, these religious spaces were deeply connected to and reflective of their communities.
Parks had known these communities well: In 1941, Parks moved to Chicago, where he set up a portrait studio and darkroom in the city's South Side Community Art Center. While there, he met several artists—Charles White among them—who encouraged him to begin photographing what he saw and experienced in Chicago’s neighborhoods. Despite his lack of professional training, In 1942, he was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship for a portfolio of photographs he created on the South Side; the award gave him the means to move east to Washington, D.C. By 1948 Life magazine hired him as its first African American staff photographer—He would return to Chicago twice on assignment for the magazine, in 1953 for the story on the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, and again in 1963 for a story on the Nation of Islam, newly headquartered in the city.
The Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, built in 1901, was designed by architect Hugh M. G. Garden. Originally built as the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, the building’s design combined classical and modern elements—notably Garden’s distinctive ornament, known as “Gardenesque”— were intended to reflect the then-new Christian Science religious movement. The building was sold to the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in 1947, and designated a Chicago Landmark in 1989. In 1953, when Parks was sent to Chicago to photograph the church and its community, the main draw its pastor, the celebrated Reverend Ernest Franklin Ledbetter, known for “Moderate Shouting" and spirited services. The Pastor was also deeply admired for the time he spent in and among his community, providing them with much-needed support and service.
Life magazine sent Parks and a white reporter to Chicago to do the story. However, as Parks later recalled, the reporter made the mistake of keeping his hat on as he entered the church. The deacons viewed this gesture, in Parks’s words, as “another case of the white man’s disrespect” and asked Parks to continue alone. As a result, Parks was on record as both the photographer and the writer for the story—his first writing assignment for the magazine, and an unusual role for any magazine photographer at the time. As with many of his assignments, Parks spent time getting to know his subjects. The resulting images— ranging from images of impassioned services to the Pastor’s daily service activities—stand out for their intimacy, sensitivity, and empathy.
The magazine ultimately did not run the feature, but the unpublished eight-page manuscript Parks wrote survives. In it, he goes into great detail about the Pastor’s relationship to and activities within the community. Most poignant, however, is Parks’s description of the Church’s role within the community, which underscores the humanitarian approach to his subjects that has remained a hallmark of his career:
Big, gleaming and white, the Metropolitan Baptist Church looms above the poverty-stricken “Community Area 28” on Chicago’s near-westside. It is a temple of hope to thousands of Negro people caught in the backyard of this vast city. It is a haven in a world of unending trouble. It offers leadership and a powerful-preaching minister. It offers emotional release to tension through what is called “Moderate Shouting,” an impassioned religious excitement. It administers to the sick and needy. It chases sinners. It is a powerful force of twenty social, welfare and missionary organizations working for the multitude who sweat out life in this nervous jungle of rotting wood and crumbling brick.
Most of its members journeyed north hoping to shake free of a bitter past. But city living brought complexities as great as those of the south. In the stifling closeness of the city slum, frustration multiplied. There was need for leadership. Gradually they banded together and made the “Big Church” up north. They dressed it in formal trappings. They softened the music, but clung to the essential passion. They found Revered E. F. Ledbetter, a big Arkansas man. As a boy he shined shoes, washed dishes and butchered hogs, and he preached his people in to the $250,000 Metropolitan Baptist. His preaching philosophy hasn’t changed since he was a youthful aspirant, “take a little text, rise high, strike fire and sit down.”
Occasionally the passion escapes its bonds of rhythmic preaching, prayer and music. A little blood flows, and the leaders, black and white, eye the church. Many feel it is a “safety valve” against explosion. Others are not sure. Most agree, however, that there is a restiveness to be dealt with. The church’s value in this situation is hard to measure, but to thousands of black voices that cry out within its porcelain-bricked walls it’s the “great home in the wilderness.” Sunday is the big day. In about 720 emotional minutes the church must repair the damage inflicted on its congregation during the preceding 156 hours. It must stoke-in enough of the goodness and patience to endure the coming week. It must quench the hot thirst for dignity and belonging, kill the urges to sin and make up for the pleasures that are denied
—Gordon Parks, unpublished manuscript for Life magazine, 1953