Columbia University IRAAS
Feb 9 11

The Doors of This Church Are Not Always Open

The above images show the Soul Saving Station on 124th Street on two different days. The top photo was taken on a Saturday at about 4 p.m.; the lower one on a Sunday around 2:30 p.m.  The Sunday picture reflects the only time I recall ever seeing the church open, although a sign outside says that is open for at least 3 hours most days. Even in the Sunday image, the person on the far right is shuttering the church. The use of protective metal gates recall the use of similar gates on retail establishments on 125th Street. The church’s vague resemblance to a store, its alliterative name that does not include the word “church” at all, and its history highlight the ways in which the Soul Saving Station has attempted to bridge the sacred-secular divide in an urban environment.

According to the church’s website, the Soul Saving Station’s name was intended to invoke images of a filling station, where a person might fill up their soul with the Holy Spirit just as one might fill up a car with gasoline. Founded in 1942, the church emphasizes “Hope for the Hopeless” and seeks to change the lives of people battling the challenges of low-income urban communities. (For the story of how a former pastor of the church perceived his role in helping individuals face these challenges, see Bishop Jesse Winley’s 1976 autobiography, Jesse.) Since its inception, the Soul Saving Station has established a network of Pentecostal churches in at least 12 states.

The lower photo, which shows a large representation of men, provides some insight into the possible demographics of the church. While it’s unclear whether this image accurately represents the membership of the church or if these men just happened to be outside at the time of the photo, it’s still notable that the church attracts what seems to be a fair amount of men, rare for most churches. (Compare the size of the group of men to the group of women standing next to them.) Also, the people in the photo appear to be relatively young, in a moment when attracting younger generations presents challenges for many churches. The fact that several people in the photo are dressed somewhat casually, with most of the men wearing jeans, is one possible way the church may be attractive to a fairly young demographic.

A final thought about this church in the context of Harlem is how the Soul Saving Station presents the idea of “soul” in comparison to the way the Apollo Theater proclaims itself “The Soul of American Culture.” There are two notions of “soul” at play here: soul as a metaphysical thing requiring redemption and soul as an attitude or lifestyle. This distinction between “having soul” and “having a soul,” and how either concept might influence the other, arises often in Harlem.

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