UPTOWN — At its peak in the 1940s, the Peoples Church in Uptown had more than 4,000 members and was led by charismatic Rev. Preston Bradley. He marched with social reformers Jane Addams and Martin Luther King Jr., and broadcast his liberal sermons to a national radio audience from the church's home in the Uptown Temple — known today as the Preston Bradley Center.
Today, however, the church's membership has dwindled to 35 members, and though they have the same social justice mission, they are struggling to keep up the Preston Bradley Center where the church resides.
"I'm not setting the world on fire here," church leader Rev. Jean Darling acknowledged.
Members of the Preston Bradley Center board, which manages the building, want a zoning change to bring needed revenue to the five-story 1920s landmark by attracting entertainment-oriented organizations as tenants and luring city-wide musical events.
Darling, however, has been on the fence since spring about the idea of swapping the building's residential zoning for business zoning and seeking a performance arts venue license.
"It needs to keep its identity as the Peoples Church," Darling said about the Preston Bradley Center, which the church owns.
Darling, who said the gentrifying neighborhood is home to a lot of "unchurched young people," said her church is trying to attract new members plans with community events.
She fears that becoming an entertainment anchor in Uptown could send the wrong message and would hurt a men's shelter in the basement that she considers "part of our ministry," she said.
Churches typically have to be in buildings under residential zoning, and require a special use permit under business or commercial zoning, which is subject to community and city approval.
The approval part scares her.
She fears that if the shelter goes before neighbors, they will say "we don't want the shelter, it can't be here anymore."
The center operates on an average budget of about $200,000 (mostly from tenants' rental fees and charity), and is home to the National Pastime Theater and the Uptown Arts Center. The president of the Preston Bradley board, William Boulware, said the building requires more than $200,000 in repairs and upgrades, including work on windows, fire doors, sprinkler systems and fire escapes.
Darling gave no date but said the church's decision about the rezoning and performance arts license is "coming soon."
Boulware said: "the church is probably traumatized into inaction." He admitted he's at his wit's end when it comes to bringing new revenue to the building, and that the church should make its decision soon.
"I think they're just afraid to make an ill-informed decision, and they keep delaying," he said.
Boulware, a lawyer, said he is confident that the church and shelter would be just fine if the zoning change is approved. He said Ald. James Cappleman's office has assured him of as much.
Cappleman's chief of staff Tressa Feher told DNAinfo Chicago that Cappleman supports both entities remaining in the center.
But Cappleman’s assurances are not enough for Darling when it comes to the shelter.
“He may be giving assurances to other people that it’s going to close, for all I know," Darling said. "And what are assurances worth, really?"
National Pastime Theater Artistic Director Laurence Bryan backs the zoning changes and said there are a lot of people “fundamentally against change, to some extent."
“I just don’t understand why they won’t accept our help," he said of the church.
Bryan, whose theater joined the Preston Bradley Center in 2012, isn't giving up though, he said.
“I love that place so much. And I care that the church remains there also,” Bryan said.