Created on Monday, 15 July 2013 Written by Michael O'Malley,The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer
EUCLID, Ohio (AP) — Inside the Euclid Square shopping mall, declared dead a decade ago, there are signs of afterlife.
Today, most of the place stands eerily empty, an abandoned expanse of intersecting concourses lined with shuttered storefronts.
Decorative fountains are bone dry. Flakes of peeling paint fall from high ceilings. An occasional structural creaking echoes in the silence.
But on Sunday mornings, there are voices, some coming from this corridor, some from that, voices of Christian praise, "Amens" and "Hallelujahs" rising from the remnants of a retail bazaar.
"He is your father!" shouts the Rev. Roscoe Heath from a pulpit in a former Lane Bryant store, now the home of New Praise Ministries. "You are a servant!"
Across the way, the Rev. K. Selessie Simmons is preaching up a storm in the former One Price Clothing outlet for women, now the Word of Faith Christian Center. "Am I helping anybody?" Simmons thunders over his flock. "Yes!" they shout. "Yes, Lord, Yes!"
New Praise and Word of Faith are two of 24 Christian congregations that rent empty storefront spaces in the moribund mall for Sunday worship and weekday Bible studies.
They are small congregations that can't afford their own church buildings, so the mall offers them reasonable month-to-month leases — $500 to $1,000 — on spaces in which to sing and praise. For some, it's a way to build their congregations and move on to their own buildings.
"I love the churches, and I'll take every one of them and more," said mall manager Rosemary Luksic. "But I'm still looking for retail."
The 687,000-square-foot shopping center opened in 1977 with nearly 100 stores. In 1998, Kaufmann's department store shut its doors and moved to nearby Richmond Town Square, marking the beginning of the end.
By 2001, only 16 stores were hanging on, including a pizza shop. By 2003, the place had slid into extinction, leaving only a Dillard's clearance store, which is still in business at the dead end of an empty corridor.
A men's clothing store, called The World of Shirts, and a couple of boutiques are open for business. But it's the two dozen churches that shoulder what's left of the place. The first one moved in about seven years ago. Through word of mouth others followed.
The space housing Grace and Mercy Church of the Living God used to be a Foot Locker; God's Way Gospel Church a Dollar Tree; House of Elohim in Jesus Christ was a Diamond's Men's Shop; Crown of Life a Fashion Bug.
Faith Baptist Church off the main concourse took over an empty beauty parlor.
"Now it's the beauty of Jesus Christ," said the Rev. Martha Forest, the church's pastor. "Anyone who wants to feel the presence of the Lord can come here, not just in this space, but all over this great mall."
The congregations have taken pride in their makeshift sanctuaries, installing pews, pulpits and risers and adorning their sacred spaces with artificial flower arrangements and Christian symbols.
Most have quality sound systems and musical instruments: drum kits, guitars, keyboards — the stuff of deliverance and praise.
On a recent Sunday, distant sounds — the shout of a preacher, the shake of a tambourine, the resolve of a chorus — could be heard echoing through a heavy silence.
Behind one door they sing, "I give myself away. .." Behind another, "Take me to the King..."
Down near Dillard's, the Rev. Wes Geiger of the Cleveland Revival Center Church is raising hell with the devil.
From the main corridor, Geiger's booming voice, boosted with reverb by a cordless microphone, can be heard through a big display window draped with purple curtains. The place used to be a leather goods shop.
"The God of Abraham, Jacob and Isaiah," Geiger bellows. "That's the God that's going to deliver me from the furnace."
Down at the other end of the shiny terrazzo corridor, the Rev. Leo Ferguson, music director for Word of Faith Christian Center, is taking a break from his keyboard.
He comes all the way from Youngstown every Sunday for the service.
"When you come in here, you're hearing the Gospel, you're hearing the word of God," says Ferguson. "We need more places like this. The churches are bringing this place back to life. That's what Christ is all about.
"If I had LeBron James' money, I'd renovate and resurrect this mall and call it Church City."
The mall, which sits on acres of concrete alongside a stretch of Interstate 90 in Euclid, is owned by businessman Ted Lichko. The property is for sale, says manager Luksic, though she acknowledges, "It's a tough time for retail now."
So are the churches a godsend?
"We're doing good," she says. "My tenants like their spaces. It's like their home. They love to come to their little churches."
The mall employs a maintenance man and around-the-clock security guards. Live palm trees among the dead fountains still grow under skylights. And Luksic says she's planning to plant some flowers.
"A little color always makes things look nice," she says.
Worshipper Linda Moss of Euclid, who attends Word of Faith Christian Center, says her congregation would like to have its own building someday, but, for now, the mall will do.
"You can serve God anywhere," she says. "And right now, this is where God has us."