Inside the multipurpose room of a long-shuttered Chester school, the Rev. Dickie Robbins commands the attention of 100 on a cold Sunday morning.

All ages and backgrounds, in sweatpants, Sunday best, and mustard-yellow suits, the worshipers of Life in Christ Cathedral of Faith clap and sway, arms wide open, to upbeat tunes.

In their hands, they carry Bibles - tattered, highlighted - and any offerings they can bring. When Robbins lifts the microphone to his lips, they dig out cellphones, pens, and paper and take notes.

"You could be locked up, you could be in some institution, in some abandoned building or car," Robbins bellows. "Your plight could be much worse than it is, and because it is not, you ought to be grateful."

Within this faded brick structure with fluorescent lighting but a decorated stage, dozens find solace: The man who was unemployed. The foster mom who took in five kids at once. The reformed prostitute and drug dealer.

Just half a block away sits a towering Ukrainian Catholic church. Vacant, for sale.

In aging Chester, the city's grandest buildings - its traditional churches - are among the emptiest.

Forsaken by congregations decades ago, these empty cathedrals have instead given rise to storefront and nontraditional churches that now thrive.

They are in corner stores, warehouses, old schools, and houses. Often, their resources are limited. Some pop up seemingly overnight, experts say, making it just as easy for them to disappear.

Chester officials keep no count of storefront churches, but ministers believe they constitute as many as half of the 150 worshiping spaces estimated in the four-square-mile city. Humble and nondescript, they blend with the dollar stores, bars, and homes surrounding them.

Welcomed by most, these spaces also stoke concern: An influx of such houses of worship - which qualify as nonprofits - means a drain on the tax base of the perennially distressed city.

And as theological and political differences have produced so many different worship spaces, some worry the storefronts are competing rather than collaborating.

Yet in Chester, a place where many good people have fallen on hard times, these churches offer space - every Sunday - for thousands to sing or cry or shout or praise.

"Some churches," Robbins booms, "have all the trimmings and all the wealth . . . but they won't feed the people who come into the building."

He pauses briefly and wipes his brow, takes a breath and proceeds. On this morning, church has only begun.

Empty pews

The concept of storefront churches dates to the Great Migration of the 1900s, experts say, when millions of African Americans fled the South to Northern cities.

Typically poor and nontraditional, most of the migrants felt excluded from established churches, said Yvonne Chireau, a Swarthmore College religion professor.

Thus, they formed their own. Having little money, storefronts and living rooms beckoned.

"These places were really seen as refuges for poor, black migrants," Chireau said.

Over the years, as blight befell financially strapped cities, the storefronts spread, from Chicago to Philadelphia to Camden.

In Chester, they flourished in the 1960s after the city's industrial sectors collapsed. Once an economic force with a predominantly white population, Chester rapidly saw an influx of African American residents - and a dearth of churchgoers in its traditional pews.

"This was classic white flight," said Mark Wallace, a Swarthmore professor active in Chester's churches. "And the churches struggled to find populations that could provide them financial support."

Few established churches fared well. In 1970, Chester's Catholic population neared 19,000. Today, it hovers around 1,300.

Catholic parishes consolidated from six to one. In one of the two remaining Episcopal churches in Chester, a congregation of 20 hangs on.

Five churches within the Presbytery of Philadelphia have shuttered or have moved out of Chester. Now just one remains. In September, the ornate, terra-cotta-roofed Third Presbyterian was sold to the Chester Historical Preservation Committee for $1.

"If we sold the church for $1, we were at least saving $350,000 in demolition costs, and doing something for the community," said Lawrence Davis, the Presbytery's business administrator.

Demolition may be seen as the last resort, but it happens. Where a church once towered on West Ninth Street, a Rite Aid now sits.

Most churches prefer instead to sell their unused or unusable space. Today, an AIDS hospice center, social service agencies, and Pentecostal and A.M.E. congregations operate in the former churches.

Others sit abandoned - empty, for sale, some with caving roofs or broken stained glass.

Departing Mayor John Linder sees them as potential hubs for critical social services. "We should have the city . . . reach out," he said, "and offer assistance to those having difficulty selling their churches."

'A huge deficit'

About 13 percent of Chester properties are designated as tax exempt, according to the Delaware County Board of Assessment, but officials say they have no way of determining how many are churches, or how that translates to unrealized tax dollars.

Most of the spaces now occupied by storefront churches are small, meaning that even if another proprietor were there - a homeowner or business - it may not yield big tax gains anyway.

Still, Linder said, every dollar counts. "When we have that many properties on the rolls that are not contributing . . . that's a huge deficit."

The relationship between city officials and storefront churches can be difficult to navigate. Linder welcomes all worshiping spaces, he said, and lauds the programs that many offer. Yet, he urged all to consider if they are able to do more.

"In the end, they're in a business," Linder said. "And they should understand what their benefits to the community can be."

The Rev. Terrence Griffith, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, said one way to start was by consolidating.

"Sometimes, when you drive down one block, you have six churches sitting together," Griffith said. "You have to ask yourself: Would they be better served if pastors put aside their desires to be the head and come together for the common good?

"The more people you pull together, the more resources you have."

'Still invite you in'

Wedged amid vacant homes with boarded-up windows, the small brick storefront at the corner of Third and Thurlow Streets was quiet, lights off and red curtains drawn.

Weekday mornings like this are common on the block, where residents meander on corners and sit atop parked cars. Others duck into Bill's Tavern, where Budweiser drafts are $2.50 all day, every day. They endure.

But on Sunday, the storefront is different, alive with the faithful who have come to the Well Full Gospel Baptist Church.

Pastor Will Shelley took over the space this month and has been working to build the congregation. He's starting, he said, by finding places to sweep.

One night, Shelley stood outside Bill's Tavern all night and waited, passing the time with the strokes of his broom.

"I'm not afraid to walk the streets, to stand outside a bar, or meet people in a drug-infested area," he said. "I don't care if you went to the club or were getting high the night before. I'll still invite you in."

Inside the modest storefront on a recent Sunday, the humble, jeans-wearing Shelley witnesses two men recruited off the street join a church for the first time.

Around the same time a few blocks away, Robbins is serving his flock at the Life in Christ Cathedral of Faith - a congregation transformed over the years from one with no college degrees into one with doctorates, with politicians.

Mostly, ministers say, to attend any storefront is to watch hundreds heal.

"Here's the good news," Robbins declares Sunday morning as he picks up where he left off. "You cannot be fully whole until you've been fully broken."

The congregation cheers. He raises his arms toward the ceiling.

"Amen."

610-313-8113@mccabe_caitlin