Love Thy Neighbor
Walter Hallam, author of numerous Christian books and recordings, steward of a perfect head of untouchable evangelist hair, stands before the Solomon’s Porch congregation on a Thursday evening in early November and commands: “Pray with me.”
Rising from metal chairs that last year displaced antique oak pews, a few hundred worshippers raise their hands and speak in tongues, loudly. Gibber collides with neighborly jabber as the ideal acoustics of the sanctuary serve up a divine linguistic sundae — scoops of Latin and Italian topped with Porky Pig: Ah-la-dooh-bah-da-deeh-ba-la-dooh.
As the prayer soars, a woman kneels in the aisle. Another shakes in the arms of a friend. Another stomps and echoes Hallam, who paces the front of the sanctuary, screaming “Thank you, Lord!” into a microphone wired to deliver decibels of pain.
Behind him, guitars, drums, microphones and amps sit where the church’s architect penciled in a pulpit 97 years ago. Above, straps dangling through holes punched in the ceiling suspend two concert-grade speakers over the congregation. From similar holes at the back of the church, a lighting rig casts its shadow across an elaborate soundboard. A large white projection screen centered over the stage partially covers the massive brass tubes of an unused pipe organ.
Eventually the praying peters out, and Hallam, a guest preacher from Houston, resumes his sermon. Before him, in the front row, sits Troy Covey, the thirty-year-old pastor of three-year-old Solomon’s Porch. Covey wears a slick black dress shirt, khakis and wire-rimmed glasses. His hair is frosted blond. He raises his hands to Hallam’s words, which are now directed at him.
“It is time to take this church to the next level!” Hallam bellows. He places his hands on the now-standing Covey, who sways back and forth on his feet, and gives this message to the pastor: “Do not be weary in your well-doing.”
And then: “The time to reap is near!”
And then a financial forecast of those graces to be reaped: “Millions will come! Millions will come! Millions will come!” The congregation, mostly young to middle-aged people, black and white, cheers the prophecy.
Outside, a few young men wearing orange vests stand at 36th and Walnut, a block from Main Street. Tonight, they provide security, a separate ministry at Solomon’s Porch with its own fourteen-week discipleship training program. Mainly, it’s an attempt to placate neighbors of the noisy congregation by ensuring that worshippers don’t park in front of driveways.
Square-jawed and handsome, Danny Phillips stands on duty tonight, just before dark, as cars pass intermittently. “It’s a foundation builder,” Phillips says of the discipleship program. “So we’re not just out here thinking we’re cool.”
Months ago, Phillips would have felt cheated by being outside the church during a service, especially one as animated as tonight’s. But the orange vest is growing on him. “I didn’t think standing out here would be that great,” he says. “But the more I think about it, I’m serving the kingdom of God, doing something of a higher purpose. That gets me going.”
Regarding the neighbors, Phillips is sincerely diplomatic. “Yeah, we’re doing something wrong if this community is being put out or being inconvenienced by our presence,” he says.
It’s more than an inconvenience. Residents call Solomon’s Porch the worst neighbor on the block.
In the beginning, there was Humboldt Avenue, a dusty road on the outskirts of Kansas City. Humboldt — now 36th Street — offered an escape from the hustle and soot of late nineteenth-century urban life.
In 1889, a Kansas City Star ad beckoned the affluent to the rarefied quietude of suburban living: “If you want a complete home of latest design with all modern conveniences, surrounded by the best society, in the choicest location, adjoining the city, removed from the dust and smoke, and within twenty minutes’ ride by cable to the center of the city, examine the MODEL DWELLINGS … for sale in HYDE PARK!”
One of the first homes here was owned by William Knight, designer of Kansas City’s trolley system. Across the street, W. M. Reid and his wife, Alice Moore, built their 1899 English mansion. The Reid and Moore families were associated with the Emery Bird Thayer department store, which President Grover Cleveland’s wife reportedly loved.
Frederick Hill, architect of the city’s first convention center, lived nearby. Seth Ward (namesake of the parkway) owned land here in the late nineteenth century. Jacob and Ella Loose (Loose Park’s benefactors) would later live on the block.
By 1902, a new flock called Westminster Congregational was looking to build. Under the leadership of the Reverend William Potts George, work began in 1904 on a structure at the corner at 36th and Walnut.
Finished three years later, Westminster’s gothic-woodwork interior, elegant stained-glass windows and elaborate glass domes at the centers of both the main sanctuary and south-side chapel made it one of the finest churches in Missouri. Its early Gothic Revival style was influenced by a church in Akron, Ohio, that had changed the way American churches accommodated both worship and Sunday school. The amphitheater-shaped main sanctuary, complete with balcony, backed into a 1912 addition of 25 classrooms that could be opened and closed to one another.
In time, Kansas City’s southward growth left behind the Hyde Park area, but Westminster Congregational Church kept the faith in the same building until 1995. The neighborhood changed.
During the suburban building spree that followed World War II, many real estate investors saw the massive homes in Hyde Park as white elephants from another time. As the city experienced a postwar housing shortage, turn-of-the-century manors were sliced up into apartments.
In the decades that followed, home ownership plummeted, and crime invaded. By 1977, when Karta Purkh and Sat Inder Khalsa moved in two houses away from Westminster, six other nearby houses contained nursing homes or group homes. As homeowners, the Khalsas would remain a rare commodity in the area during the next few decades. Prostitutes lived in apartments next door. Drug dealers walked across their lawn. The Khalsas cared for the neighborhood, as did former city councilwoman Aggie Stackhaus and her husband, Jim, but real estate agents were now marketing the properties almost exclusively to investors who coveted rental income.
By 1990, the block, like all parts of Old Hyde Park, hit a low point. Despite its attractive location — sandwiched between Crown Center and the Plaza — the area struggled. The old English mansion originally owned by the Reid family sat vacant after a nursing home abandoned it. Vagrants moved in. Brush covered the entire property. Weeds grew to six-foot heights.
Humboldt Avenue had gone to hell.
Then, in the mid-1990s, property owners led a revival of the Old Hyde Park region.
Amid an improved economy and a market for vintage homes, sadly depreciated apartments were transformed back into single-family homes. Neighborhood activists, captained by a diligent president named John Gladeau, worked to register the area as a historic district, a move Stackhaus calls “the greatest thing that happened to this neighborhood.” Today, Gladeau proudly recites the rehabilitation statistics: 56 rental properties converted back into homes.
During this time, the Reid place made a comeback when Bill Burk and Scot Stockton bought it, cut away the brush to expose the once-grand exterior and started to convert the Colonial Nursing Home — empty for seven years — back into a residence. Across the street, “Doc” and Nirmal Khalsa did the same with Sunset Manor. The 1888 home taken over by Dan Magrone and Will Ray wasn’t quite as daunting as their neighbors’ projects, but they immediately began an inside-and-out restoration.
The historic designation, Gladeau says, became a source of pride for longtime homeowners and a marketing tool to encourage new ones. The landmarks commission, which approves alterations to historic properties, became a valued government body, its rules commandments. Once a property was purchased, neighbors would call the commission to make sure the new residents had checked in with the right motives. Residents have also targeted Main Street businesses such as The Madrid Theatre (Around Hear, Page 53).
Prostitutes began to disappear; drugs began to vanish. The occasional drunkard would wander by, and thefts would be reported from time to time, but the feel of the neighborhood began to match the commission-approved improvements that spread from home to home.
It was the year of our Lord, 1999, and Solomon’s Porch was about to move in.
Like the neighborhood in which he would later plant his church, Troy Covey says he too had reached his nadir by the end of the Reagan era.
In 1991 — “on the eve of the Gulf War,” as Covey says — the future Solomon’s Porch pastor sat in New York City, drunk and doped, with a shotgun in his lap and a broomstick on the trigger. The twenty-year road that led Covey to the brink of a Big Apple suicide started in rural Nebraska, where he grew up in a town called Superior.
At age 14, Covey moved to Tulsa when his parents decided to attend Bible school there. For the next five years, he followed in their footsteps all the way to Rhema Bible School, in which he enrolled at age eighteen. But after a year there, Covey started to sour on the church. What once seemed so pure now came across as fake and contrived. He encountered disingenuous preachers whose words and actions tainted his own spiritual calling. “I started to see religion instead of relationship,” he says. “I got bitter instead of better.”
Covey left Tulsa for New York and for the next three years set out to experience all he had suppressed in a life of goodness. There were few sober days, he says. In his retelling, the haze clears in 1991 New York City, with the booze, the drugs, the broomstick and the gun he says wouldn’t discharge. “Why won’t you let me die?” Covey screamed to God. Then he passed out.
At 3 a.m., Covey says, he awoke paralyzed by an evil presence in his room. He sat frozen, trying to utilize the words of Romans 10:13: “Call on the name of the Lord, and you will be saved.” When he finally worked up the courage to call upon Jesus, the evil expired. Then Mom phoned from South Dakota.
She told him she knew about the gun, knew that he had been feeling sorry for himself and knew that he had a calling. “You have a mission to complete,” she said.
A few days later, Troy Covey went to church, where a man named Michael Peace — the “godfather of Christian rap music” — approached him. “You’ve been running from God,” Peace told him, “and I’m going to get you back on track.”
The patriarch of God-rap kept his word, constantly calling and pestering Covey to stay the course. It worked. Three years later, Covey completed his studies at Rhema Bible School in Tulsa and moved to Lenexa, Kansas, where he helped establish a Christian Gen-X road show called Fish Ministries. For four years, Covey worked in and traveled from Johnson County without spending any time in Midtown Kansas City.
But in 1998, Covey says, God sent him a message: go and preach “in the heart of the heart of America.” So he packed up and started his own church in Westport.
Named for the Old Testament edifice where New Testament legend says the apostles Peter and John performed miracles, Solomon’s Porch came unto Westminster by way of a storefront at 39th and Main in November 1999, where the church had grown from seven to more than 100 members in less than a year. Covey’s concept — a contemporary, urban church that welcomed everyone — brought in young people usually alienated by religion and adults who had roamed from church to church without a match. “I liked the worship,” recalls one young church member. “It’s kind of loud. More [an] our-generation type of thing. But it’s definitely real.”
From the start, electrified music was a major part of Covey’s religious concept. Besides the rock played during Sunday and midweek services, the church adopted a concert-hosting Hardcore Ministry to attract the “ones that nobody wants to give the time of day, or even get close to … the tattooed, pierced, rebellious, disrespectful, angry, hurt, wounded and neglected ones that are searching for answers and want nothing but the truth.” Many in attendance already had a church, but the shows furthered Solomon’s Porch’s reputation as a modern, nonjudgmental alternative for worship.
The church offered everything old-school, conventional congregations did not. Although backed by Walter Hallam’s Almond Ministries Fellowship and the Oklahoma-based International Pentecostal Holiness Church (which granted Solomon’s Porch a loan in excess of $400,000 when it moved into Westminster), Covey retained autonomy over his church. He rejected any Sunday morning liturgy, plugged in an amp and roared gospel “in the language of youth culture.”
Covey says Westminster sits in an ailing Midtown community that needed to be revived. But within a month, Solomon’s Porch began to wear on the nerves of area homeowners.
Because the church had no parking lot for itself, visitors left cars on the streets, under no-parking signs, in front of fire hydrants and blocking driveways. Despite Covey’s goal of creating a church in the heart of America, many followers were driving in from the appendix and spleen. “Most of the congregation is a commute-in, drive-in-from-out-yonder batch of folk,” says Dan Campbell, a former United Methodist pastor who lived in the area until recently. “They simply started parking anywhere they chose. Signs didn’t matter.”
And the noise! The music, particularly the drums and bass, could be heard outside during services on Thursday and Sunday evenings. And unlike the previous congregation, Solomon’s Porch’s parishioners would linger well into the night after services ended or when concerts were staged there.
Not long after moving into Westminster, Covey sent a letter to some neighbors who had scouted the church during a service. The letter spoke of his goals for both his church and the neighborhood.
“As you know, we are in an area of town that has been, for the most part, forgotten,” Covey wrote. “Many people build their live’s [sic] ambition to move away from here, but we have made it our ambition to move in!”
Unfortunately, Sat Inder Khalsa, who had lived in the area for more than twenty years and helped organize Sikh religious observance in Kansas City from her home, didn’t think of her neighborhood as a place to flee. “Forgotten by whom?” she wrote back in February 2000. “Possibly by those who have never known it?”
Covey’s words hit some neighbors as a direct insult. After all, they were the ones who spent their time and energy restoring both history and safety to the neighborhood. Who the hell was Troy Covey?
“I can’t say enough about what a wonderful neighborhood this is,” says Aggie Stackhaus, a resident of Old Hyde Park since 1980. “It’s diverse; it’s inclusive. And it’s unfortunate and hurtful when someone comes in and doesn’t recognize the value we place in it.”
Almost two years ago, neighbors Bill Burk, Dan Magrone and Will Ray looked outside and saw Solomon’s Porch members casting pews from the church. They wanted to look away. Word spread about the pews, the punctured ceilings, the dismantled doors and the new stage that was doing God-knows-what to the Gothic woodwork underneath. “I can’t stand to see what they did,” Burk says.
When neighbors heard that the pipe organ donated by Ella Loose had been dismantled, they shook their heads. “We sound like old grandmothers,” Sat Inder says. “But we’re kind of attached to the church.”
Then, earlier this year, the unthinkable occurred: a chain link fence sprouted outside Solomon’s Porch. “The neighborhood,” Stackhaus says, “started having cats with crochet tails.”
By summer 2000, neighbors were calling police when parking issues arose. When they suspected changes were being made to the inside of the church, they notified the landmarks commission and the city codes department. In May 2000, a flurry of e-mails regarding Solomon’s Porch circulated through city hall.
This October, the Old Hyde Park Neighborhood Association phoned in new grievances, and city officials ordered work stopped at a house Covey purchased off 34th and Wyandotte, saying he had initiated construction without permits.
Neighbors say Covey’s unresponsive attitude has forced them to play watchdog. Calls go unreturned. Mail from the neighborhood association is ignored. In February 2000, a representative from Friends of Sacred Structures called Covey after a member of the old Westminster Congregational Church expressed concern about the building. Covey never called back.
Bill Burk and Scot Stockton say that when they encountered the young pastor and told him about the historic nature of the area and the responsibility it demands, Covey acted shocked that his church was on both the Kansas City and national historical registers. Meanwhile, as opposition mounted on the outside, Solomon’s Porch continued to grow on the inside. Even with a come-and-go congregation, a few hundred people show up regularly.
Church opens with 45 minutes of professionally played Christian rock that sends visitors dancing in the aisles, jumping up and down and singing along. Shortly after the set begins, Covey takes centerstage on acoustic guitar and vocals. Like any half-decent rock star, he sings with ecstasy on his face one moment, anguish the next.
Covey’s sermon can last close to two hours. “We’re going to go late tonight; if you need to leave, you need to leave,” he says. Few go.
Stalking the front of the stage, Covey speaks into a redundant microphone in a voice like that of the late comedian Sam Kinison. He rants in a straightforward and plainspoken way. “We must speak in metaphors of our time,” he says. “As Jesus did.”
One night he told congregants they should be as excited to take in the word of God as they would be to wrestle for footballs wrapped in money. “Take it by force!” he says.
Another night, the message is that Solomon’s Porch members must become less dependent on others, on the church, on their pastor, and become more independent in their relationship with God. He says, “Get off the boob.”
He preaches about his limits, how he can’t be all things to all people all the time. He talks about parishioners’ getting mad when he doesn’t return their phone calls, which come at a staggering rate — his cell phone rings constantly and his voice mailbox fills up. He gets love letters. From time to time, saucy women will show up to church in everything but a wedding dress — except for the one time, he claims, when a young lady did in fact arrive in nuptial white. These love letters, he tells the congregation, must stop. Some people chuckle. Many smile. One woman shouts “Amen!” as though wise to the ways of such tireless pastor hounds.
Despite what his neighbors say, Covey calls Solomon’s Porch “community-driven.” It brings in families without churches. It feeds anyone who wants to attend services. It even houses a private day school with fifteen students. “It’s all a part of restoring the neighborhood, ” Covey says. “It’s part of bringing back Midtown.
“A lot of the problems [with neighbors] stem from a few people in the neighborhood association who are not in favor of the work we’re doing, and I think they’re more concerned with their personal property,” he says. “If you really had the Midtown vision, you would be excited about what we’re doing.”
In fact, he says, the pipe organ they’re concerned about was disassembled because Solomon’s Porch had no use for it. They set the keyboard console to the side of the stage to make room for bands, where it sits today, intact. The pews, he says, were removed because they were old. Some were breaking under the weight of Solomon’s Porch members. About ten pews are being repaired, he says, by an antique specialist (the phone number for the Shelbina, Missouri, business is not in service); the rest are being stored elsewhere in the church.
The changes, Covey says, are being made with both history and the contemporary needs of his church in mind. “Our vision is Isaiah 58, verses 6-10,” he says. “The twelfth verse talks about restoring the paths, restoring the foundations. And I think there is nothing more powerful than taking something from the past and restoring it for the future.”
Neighbors around Solomon’s Porch say it is not the message of the church that bothers them. “I realize that for some of the people, they’re coming to church, so they have some calling,” says Doc Khalsa. “And that has to be respected.”
The issue is being a good neighbor. Although Dan Campbell has moved, he says he still understands the concerns of his former neighbors. “I think that Covey did not understand that he was moving into a neighborhood. I think he saw he was purchasing a parcel of property. I think his choice to be oblivious to issues with the landmarks commission, with the neighborhood, with ordinary things like parking, speaks to his level of indifference to who his neighbors are. I don’t think that is something he understands, being a neighbor.”
The situation, says Aggie Stackhaus, is beyond ironic. “This is what Jesus would tell you to do: ‘You should love your neighbor,'” she says. “Well, I’m not feeling loved.”
The Friday night after Walter Hallam stormed into Solomon’s Porch and revved an already pumped congregation into a fit of tongues, a crowd of some fifty young men with music on their minds and Jesus in their souls wanders into the church and pays $7 each to hear a showcase of three bands sponsored by the Hardcore Ministry.
The flier for the show, which features local group Entropy and itinerant groups Through It All and Figure Four, displays a cartoon portrait that looks like Billy Idol sticking his finger through one eye and poking out the other.
The show takes place in the chapel on the church’s south side. The room is lined by a small balcony and crowned at its center by one of those glass domes. Through It All has just taken the stage, which is flanked by a massive foam backdrop that makes the room feel like the deck of a Viking ship. The foam set is for youth services, which will bring in smoke machines and deliver sermons in costume.
After ten minutes, Through It All is already through half of its furiously fast but spiritually pure set. “This next song is about how much I hate pornography! How it rots your brain and ruins your soul!” announces the group’s heavyset, tattooed singer as the band launches into another quick blast of breakneck instrumentation and indecipherable lyrics.
Outside, away from the mayhem, a young man named Thomas sits on the ground with an orange vest draped over his shirt. He has been going to Solomon’s Porch since the church was on Main Street. He keeps coming back because it’s “real,” and everyone is genuine. The move has given the church a chance to grow, he says. Now Solomon’s Porch is right smack in the middle of the Midtown community — the heart of the heart of the heart — where it can do the most good. On this point, he quotes passages from the Bible as though spouting sports trivia, capping it all with a familiar refrain. “You reap what you sow,” he says.
And then a cautious observation, this one his own: “There’s a lot of suffering and misery in this area. You’ve just got to deal with that.”