Multimedia reporter

A Church Finds Its Radio Voice Again

THE LOCAL (NYT blog), published 9 April, 2009

Small girls in pink prom dresses held their breath. Young choir members cleared their throats quietly. Senior congregants like Lillian Ede drifted back to the times when gang members would sit in the back pews, craning their necks to see the pretty girls.

Then Bishop Carl Williams Jr. took the microphone, and the Institutional Church of God in Christ was back on the air after an absence of more than 30 years.

The March 26 evening service, broadcast two days later on WSNR radio, 620 AM, marked a milestone for the church at 170 Adelphi Street — and an acknowledgment of the transformation of the neighborhood, said Mr. Williams, whose father founded the church in 1951.

The church, home to the renowned, Grammy-nominated Institutional Church of God in Christ Radio Choir, had ended its 25-year radio run in the late 1970s, in part because, Mr. Williams said, “It was too dangerous.”

Parishioners used to pack the church for the broadcast service, which taped at 10:30 p.m. on Sundays (Mr. Williams’s father, Carl Williams Sr., picked such a late time slot to take advantage of the fact that all the other churches around were done for the day).

But the area was so crime-ridden that congregants’ cars often were vandalized, the younger Mr. Williams said.

“The church was between the projects; it was located in the area between the street gangs,” he recalled. “One was from the Fulton Street side, the other from Myrtle Avenue. One gang was called the Bishops, the other the Chaplains.”

The gangs would converge on the church, between Myrtle and Willoughby. Gang members came to flirt with female congregants but often ended up threatening parishioners and starting fights, Mr. Williams said.

“The neighborhood was in a bad shape,” Mr. Williams said, shaking his head. “Once a gospel choir from California came to visit, and as they were singing someone broke into their van and stole a lot of their sound equipment.”

The high cost of radio time was also a problem. “It turned out to be almost $800 a week,” the Bishop said. “It wasn’t profitable.”

This year, the church was able to get a much cheaper time slot on WSNR, based in Jersey City. “We pay $250 a week,” Mr. Williams said. “And we reach all of Brooklyn, New Jersey, Long Island, Queens and all the Bronx.”

The service, which tapes on Thursday nights at 8 and is broadcast Saturdays at 8:30 a.m., draws both longtime members, who now live as far away as Pennsylvania, and people from the ever-changing neighborhood.

Mr. Williams said he doesn’t see gang members amid a congregation where doctors, police officers and Wall Streeters worship side by side.

“The area is much quieter now,” he said (so quiet that the choir itself now draws noise complaints). “A lot of Wall Street yuppies have bought homes in this area, instead of spending all the time traveling out to the Island.”