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Because Our Storefront Churches Can Manage the Ungodly Rent (Sort of)


In the summer, if you walk down Myrtle Avenue between Waverly and Clinton in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, on a Sunday morning, just past the Three Stars laundromat you’ll find a small group of elderly African-Americans perched on metal folding chairs on the sidewalk, dressed in their Sunday best, listening to Pastor Marvin J. Lee deliver a sermon over a beat-up, staticky old stereo system. Most of these parishioners are over 60 and lifelong members of the Revelation Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal storefront church that Pastor Lee’s father, Bishop John P. Lee, founded in the neighborhood more than 50 years ago.


When Bishop Lee, a Florida native, opened Revelation on Myrtle in 1966, inside a single-screen movie theater, the area was a seedy, crime-ridden den. The nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard closed that same year. Three years later, the 81-year-old Myrtle Avenue El was decommissioned. White flight had already begun in earnest, and Revelation was one of many small congregations founded by black arrivals from the South, who were used to a more charismatic religious experience and shunned by the buttoned-up institutions they encountered in the cities at the end of the Great Migration.

In the 1960s, the Revelation had upwards of 200 people filling those old movie seats, but on a recent fall Sunday, fewer than 20 congregants attended service. “A lot of them went to the Carolinas,” Pastor Lee tells me. “It’s not the church it used to be.” Then again, this wouldn’t be the first time the church has struggled to keep its doors open. In the 1970s, the ceiling caved in and it could barely afford repairs. In the 1980s, the church fell egregiously behind on mortgage but was given extra time to catch up on payments. When Bishop Lee fell ill a few years ago, his son moved back to Brooklyn from Georgia to lead the congregation. “I’d hate to see it go,” says Lee. “We’re not thinking about selling. I know some of this community is about what you can get out of the real estate, but it’s not about that.”