How to Take a Walk—in Buffalo, and Beyond: Store-Front and In-House Churches

We continue the series on walking Buffalo, from the intrepid couple who walked every day—no matter the weather—in the first 30 months of Covid. They think (without being systematic) they walked every street in Buffalo, and many in other cities and towns, taking some 20,000 photos, some of which are shared in this series. While not itineraries, we hope to encourage others to “walk the walk,” to see, observe and appreciate Buffalo—and beyond. William Graebner and Dianne Bennett are also 5 Cent Cine’s film critics, here.

Today’s Photo-Essay: Store-Front and In-House Churches

A 100-foot stretch of Leroy Avenue, on Buffalo’s upper East Side, captures the state of Buffalo’s churches. On the west side of that stretch, there’s the magnificent Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church, representing the city’s majority-Catholic past, and still operating. Across a vacant lot to the east, in an ordinary house, is the Iglesia Pentecostal Adonai, Inc., flying the Puerto Rican flag, and representing dozens—probably hundreds (we have photographed over 50 on our walks)—of in-house and store-front churches in the area, most of them in the city of Buffalo. As of 2020, about 57% of Buffalonians identified themselves as “religious.” Of those, 38.8% were Catholic, 1.2% Pentecostal. 

Churches that occupy houses or homes are especially common on the city’s East Side. Some are tiny, some forlorn, some rather grand. Below, the unidentified church is built in and onto a very old house on Walnut Street, south of Broadway.  Not far away, on Hickory Street, Blessed Ministries Church occupies a classic 1910-era home.  Jefferson Avenue Community Church (JCC) comes with a truncated tower. Also on the East Side, St. Mark Apostolic Ministry is in an elaborate house/home.  

The smallest in-house church we’ve seen is City of Praise, on Genesee Street. You Can Make It Ministry, also on the East Side, may not have “made it.” Faith Based Fellowship on William Street, whose above-the-door symbol includes a shield reminiscent of the crusades, is equally bereft. 

Converting a house into a church can be as simple as putting up a sign, or it can involve a dramatic change in the structure. Case in point: Greater Faith Temple/Church of God in Christ, with its delightful crenelated tower. 

Store-front/in-house churches aren’t new. Buffalo photographer Milton Rogovin’s first photography project (1957-58) was of store-front churches—mostly interiors—in the city’s African American community. These churches are often a part of the experience of Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, and they generally serve lower economic classes. 

Among the store-front churches, Revival Center Church (ReNEWal Church of God & True Holiness), on Genesee Street at Herman, offers a positive message typical of these churches (rather than “hellfire and damnation”). Note the Covid mask on Dianne’s arm—photo August 2020. The name of New Miracle Temple of God, on Kensington Avenue, has an upbeat tone (we liked the sign on the wall reserving a parking space for the pastor). On Genesee Street, Gods Tabernacle of Praise offers a supportive message and an interesting redoing of the storefront. The pastors are a husband/wife team or are otherwise related; it’s common for store-front churches to have women in positions of authority. M.C.H.C.A stands for Mount Calvary Holy Church of America.  

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the church is occupying a house or a storefront. The building that houses Fishers of Men Christian Ministries on Bailey Avenue appears to have been first a home, then a store. Grace Missionary Baptist Church is in a building that was once a home, then—we think, from the windows—a bar. 

While many of the store-front churches are in run-down buildings (one imagines that the rent is low), others occupy substantial structures. On Fougeron Street at Genesee, with the Wonder Bread building in the background, Israel of God is in a substantial brick building with decorative features (though it’s not clear how one enters). Sword of the Spirit Ministries, at 300 Kensington Avenue, occupies a contemporary bank building, with a drive-up window. If you’ve got a large congregation, try an abandoned movie theater. City Church is in Batavia. The slogan on the marquee, “We Do Life Together,” likely reflects the Covid-19 pandemic (photo February 2021). Then there’s the any-port-in-a-storm location for a church (now closed), in what once was a Wilson Farms store on the West Side.  

One source of the proliferation of store-front/in-house churches is Buffalo’s growing population of immigrants, which includes substantial numbers of Asians (about 7% of the city’s population) and Latinos. In our experience, Asians don’t tend to do storefronts, though we did come across Chin Southern Baptist Church (Burmese and Chin) on Hawley Street on the West Side (the Chin are a mountain people by tradition, 80% Christian). The building once housed Calvary Christian Vietnamese Church. There are also Buddhist institutions on Fillmore Avenue south of Broadway, and in Lovejoy (the Meditation Monastery), but no Buddhist store-front churches that we know of. 

Of those who were religious in Buffalo in 2020, less than 2% were affiliated with Islam. Still, we found one store-front/in-house mosque, and another site that may house a mosque. Al-Khulafa Mosque is on Forest Avenue, next to the Somali Youth Association of Buffalo, which could be defunct. Islamic Da’wah Center of Buffalo (Da’wah is the act of converting to Islam) is next door to the Genesee Mini Mart Express. 

Store-front churches catering to Buffalo’s Latino population are scattered throughout the city. The Old Town neighborhood, adjacent to the Chevy plant in Riverside, has Iglesia de Calvario, its strange tower emerging from an old stone house. The far West Side is represented by Iglesia Pentecostal Fuego de Dios, on Busti Avenue; one of the pastors is a woman. In Black Rock, there’s Adoradores De Cristo, whose pastor is a woman. And, on the East Side, Iglesia Pentecostal de Adonai, on Leroy, that served as the starting point for this photo-essay. 

Why all these store-front/in-house churches? One factor, surely, is that these spaces are inexpensive to purchase/rent and maintain, especially compared to the cost of maintaining (and heating) a much larger, traditional church. The decline of the Catholic Church and the traditional Protestant denominations—Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian (.8, 2.7, 2.0, and 1.9 %, respectively, of the religious population of Buffalo)—is another factor, one reflecting a distrust of these churches as institutions as well as a general decline in Christianity in the US. In 1976, 91% of Americans defined themselves as Christians; in 2022, only 64%. And, just as the past half century has seen an ongoing fragmentation in the way people define themselves (from male/female to LGBTQ, and so on), church-goers today are more likely to desire a very specific, personal, precisely defined, local experience. In a house—or a store front. 

To view more of this series, click here.

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