CHATHAM — Every other Sunday, rain or shine, Church On The 9 takes over a Chatham street corner.
Despite its name, the event offers those who take part an opportunity to perform as well as preach.
A Chicago State University graduate and South Side native, Charles Preston, 27, started the program in June of 2016 out of frustration with the lack of open mics or other places to perform in the area. He said while street preaching is an essential part of African-American history, the practice evolved over the years to take on a broader function.
"The first churches for black people weren't in a formal institution. It was just people convening and promoting African spirituality," Preston said. "Street corners were used in the Harlem Renaissance with performers and artists and then later as a means of politically organizing people.
Preston came up with the name Church on the 9 because people usually see church as a safe place. On the 9 comes from the gathering's location at 79th Street.
As the event unfolded last Sunday, a few people could be seen arriving with Preston, according to a livestream of the event posted to Facebook. Curious bystanders peered into the circle of people to see what all the commotion was about. After a few spoken word performances, the circle grew and others came forward, including rappers, dancers and those giving political opinions.
Performers go back and forth, rapping about institutional racism, poverty, gang violence and the Chatham community.
"Black women are not superheroes invincible to pain, we have simply adapted to our chains," one woman rapped Sunday. "We are real, shining but still dying."
"People need to realize there isn't a lack of talent in Chatham, and more importantly, the South Side. There are so many more Chance the Rappers and Vic Mensas who don't get an outlet for creativity," Preston said in an interview.
Preston holds the event from 7-10 p.m. every other week at 79th and Cottage Grove. He said a half-dozen to 30 people usually show up. The intersection was chosen since it's one of the most policed areas in Chicago, he said.
"There's a narrative about Chatham that the streets aren't safe and that's why it's even more powerful that we're on the street every Sunday performing. People see us there every week and we're inclusive, anyone who wants to step into the circle can come and perform," Preston said.
Chicago performer Bella Bahhs performing at Church on the 9. [Charles Preston]
With a history of community organizing, Preston is fully aware of the gravity of the issues that come up during Church On The 9.
As a student at Chicago State, he was one of the organizers leading the effort for the campaign "Save CSU" which formed in response to the state budget crisis and huge budget cuts that threatened the school's ability to operate.
Organizer Charles Preston leads students down 95th Street through the Roseland neighborhood in 2016. [DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin]
A Roseland native, Preston says he constantly encountered trouble when trying to find an open mic for artists.
"When I was younger we used to go to the Young Chicago Authors office in Wicker Park to perform at Worldplay. It's an open mic that all of the biggest in Chicago go to, but it's all the way in Wicker Park. Chance from 79th would go all the way to Wicker Park for an open mic because there are no free outlets on the South Side," Preston said.
Church On The 9 usually runs spring months until November, but Preston is planning on continuing the tradition in the winter by moving it inside.
"Church On The 9 is organic, which leaves more of an open-door impression. I want to show people that you can do something for your community without any strings attached," he said.
The next Church On The 9 is Aug. 13.