Spelman Chapel provides niche for Kent community

Pat Jarrett

The plush, candy-apple red carpet inside the chapel is dulled only by the full sound of the organ plugging away hymns and the chorus of angelic voices. The bejeweled fingers of a nine-year veteran organ player move like workhorses on the keyboard, keeping the 23-pew chapel filled with brassy notes, most every moment.

Interspersed between organ notes and thick voices drifts the bluesy tones coming from a sunburst Fender Stratocaster. The guitarist plays with his eyes closed, less stage fright than reverence and prayer.

Welcome to Spelman Chapel.

Spelman Chapel is nestled in the back corner of the intersection of Walnut and Oak Streets on the south end of Kent. The whitewashed cinder-block building is a far cry from the grandiose facade and streaking skyward spires of Trinity Lutheran Church less than half-mile away.

Church members built the structure in the 1950s. Before the church was completed in 1961, parishioners worshipped in the basement of the unfinished church, senior choir member Paul Brown said.

The south end of town is home to a shopping plaza, a post office, this reporter’s residence, a strip club and about a half dozen churches of varying size and denomination. Historically, the area has been home to Irish and Italian communities, said Guy Pernetti, Kent Historical Society Executive Director.

The railroad attracted the immigrants to that end of town, said Pernetti, and black people started to settle there soon after. This area was the first to integrate schools, he said.

“The Irish and Italian immigrants usually made the trek into town to St. Pat’s (St. Patrick’s Church),” Pernetti said. “The smaller churches seemed to be tailored to their congregation and a handful of people who built the churches. It’s the American way.”

The railroad eventually brought Paul Brown to Kent. He has been coming to the church since he moved to the south end from Iowa in 1921. One of his mother’s relatives died on the railroad tracks while working for the B&O Railroad Company, and his family moved here to take care of the arrangements.

He was a child, and the day after he moved to the neighborhood, he said he started school. Though he said he didn’t have the best first impression of town, he made quick friends in the neighborhood that he kept throughout his life.

He even met his wife in the south end. She lived across the street from him, said Brown, and he would tell his mother he was going to visit his future wife’s older brother.

“I never spoke a word to him,” Brown said.

They met when Brown was nine years old, and he doesn’t “know when he wasn’t dating (his) wife,” he said.

Brown and his wife, Agnes, decided to stay in the neighborhood after they were married. Brown said he bought a home from Martin Spelman, a man who owned several plots in the neighborhood.

The man that sold a house to Brown was the same man who donated the land so that a neighborhood church could move out of what used to be a house and into a proper church building, Brown said.

The church was the crux of the community, Brown said. He said his mother and sister went at first, and after his father became religious, “even the dog had to go to church on Sunday.”

The church was a priority in the neighborhood, Brown said, and that moral backbone kept the neighborhood together.

Brown is a mainstay in the five-member church choir and other singers look to him for help when they don’t know details of an unfamiliar hymn.

“He knows them all,” said Rev. Vicky Smith, who has been a pastor at Spelman Chapel since October of last year. Like Brown, she has an affinity for vocal contributions.

“The Lord uses me and gives me the words” when she sings, she said.

Smith said she started going to church when she was 10 years old solely because of the singing. After she “was baptized on December 6, 1970,” her penchant for gospel singing led her to a serious love of the church.

“I’m not here to entertain you, we’re here to worship,” Smith said. “You have to get the people involved if you want to worship. I don’t spend much time in the pulpit,” she said.

She recalled a time when kids could walk around their neighborhood in the summer and play kickball as the old residents watched from their porches. Everyone knew everyone, she said.

“This was the African American neighborhood from Oak to Cherry Street,” Smith said. “If anybody asked, ‘where are all the black people?’ they would come to this neighborhood.”

Smith said she sees her congregation changing. It is a challenge to keep young people coming to the church when the older generation is moving on, Smith said. She also said the neighborhood is becoming more diverse racially.

“Things are changing because people are getting older and (it’s) time to move out,” Smith said. “We have to start the whole neighborhood all over again.”

Contact religion reporter Pat Jarrett at [email protected]