In early February, NorthStar Church of the Arts opened its doors for an open house. Visitors were asked to fill out nametags that indicated their name, the pronoun they prefer, and the name of an artist or work of art that has inspired them. To the right of the church’s spacious stage, a pew was scattered with a few dozen books that visitors were encouraged to read aloud. In a separate nook, stage right, a board of sticky notes instructed visitors to write down the name of a patron saint from their community. Pauli Murray, Baba Chuck Davis, and Ann Atwater were listed as examples. Without pause, a black thirteen-year-old boy wrote down his grandmother’s name.
These exercises are the genius loci of this revolutionary new space, a spirit that is further transmitted by the phrase “The Way of Peace” chiseled above the door.
“People come in here, and everybody has the same reaction—‘Wow, this place speaks to my spirit,’” says Grammy Award-winning jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, who, along with her husband, the architect Phil Freelon, bought the Gothic Revival-style church in 2017 as a legacy project. They hope to fill a void in Durham by creating a space where underrepresented voices can flourish, and creative expression can be exalted.
“We organized a church on purpose. This is not an accident,” Nnenna continues. “This is what a church should be—a place that enhances a community and invites all people.”
NorthStar, named after enslaved people’s guiding star to freedom and the church’s location at the corner of North Street and West Geer, is not quite a church in the way that the building’s bones might suggest. It does not adhere to a linear pastor-congregation model. As for the scriptures—they might range, on a given day, from Octavia Butler to Audre Lorde to 2Pac.
Like any arts venue, the church will offer regular curated programming—such as the March 12 artist talk by Marcella D. Camara on her current exhibit, MAPS—but it will also host monthly Sunday services led by different artists and community leaders. Overall, NorthStar is an endeavor toward communitas, or a manifestation of the kind of shared ritual space that W.E.B. Du Bois imagined for society. NorthStar’s creative guides—Nnenna and Phil Freelon, their son Pierce Freelon, and Heather Cook—have taken a holistic approach to the interrelationship between artistic expression and a communal reverence for the sacred.
Designed and built in 1930 by Durham architect George Watts Carr Sr., Ephphatha (meaning “be opened” in Aramaic) was erected as a place of worship for the city’s hearing-impaired community. Industrialization thrived in urban centers like Durham, drawing in laborers who were able to work near loud machinery at factories. Ephhpatha met the needs of a marginalized congregation by offering services in American Sign Language. In 1977, the Ephhpatha congregation moved on to another space, though it would go on to house other congregations before it was deconsecrated.
When the building went on the market in 2013, the Freelons approached the owner with the idea of reopening the space as a healing center. The building was taken off the market, however, and it wasn’t until 2017, when it was listed again—albeit with a higher price tag—that the Freelons were able to make an offer and acquire the church.
That same year, curator and consultant Heather Cook and her husband had also explored the idea of repurposing the space for Durham’s creative community. Upon meeting with the realtor, she discovered that it was no longer available. A week later, though, during a coffee date with her frequent collaborator, Pierce Freelon—who now serves as artistic director at NorthStar—Cook discovered that his parents had purchased the church and felt a sense of relief: The historic building would be in great hands.
“You start to care about a space,” says Cook, who joined the NorthStar team as executive director. “Even if our dream wasn’t fully articulated or ironed out, the idea [was] that this space was worthy of protecting and claiming for the community and not just for somebody’s loft apartment.”
“Which could have been super hip and cute,” Nnnenna adds. “But it would have benefitted one person, one family, one street. This is the highest and best use of this space—a community space.”
As uncharacteristic as it would have been for Phil Freelon to entertain the idea of replacing the church with anything resembling loft apartments—or office spaces, or a bar, as has become the trend in an increasingly gentrified Durham—he also decided that it would be unnecessary to make any noticeable structural changes to the church.
“Enhancements were not needed,” he says. “We let the space speak for itself.” Other than upgrading the HVAC system and addressing some physical-accessibility issues, the Freelons have maintained the building’s original integrity.
“I started The Freelon Group in 1990 as a one-person architectural firm, and we’ve always focused on projects in the community and trying to bring beautiful design to enhance the community,” Phil says. “Now, as I head toward retirement, I want to continue in that same vein—to bring beauty and art to our communities. This space is already beautiful architecturally.”
“This is a small space—we say small and mighty. We’re not trying to be DPAC or Baldwin Auditorium,” Nnenna says. “There are certain kinds of things that will fly here and other kinds that will not work. We see ourselves as true collaborators. If we bring an artist into town who is too big for this space, we will be calling Hayti to see if we can present it there. We will be calling The Pinhook.”
As Phil points out, rising prices in downtown Durham have resulted in many black-owned businesses shuttering. Just recently, the African clothing and crafts shop Ngozi Design Collective was forced to close its Main Street location. A few doors down, Beyù Caffè announced last November that it would be discontinuing its live music offerings. The disappearance of a minority presence in downtown Durham is beginning to look startling.
“It just goes to show you how tenuous the tightrope is that our creative community is on, with the rising cost of downtown and the way that folks of color are being pushed to the margins of the city,” Pierce says. “NorthStar is at the epicenter of creating those new types of spaces.”
“One of the real intentions of being creative within this space is making sure that at a moment’s notice, when there is a need in the community, we figure out a way that we can support that need,” says Cook. “We were just having a conversation about bringing [Durham City Council member] Vernetta Alston in here to celebrate her.”
Earlier this month, Immaculata Catholic School’s African-American Heritage Committee invited Alston, an Immaculata alumna and an openly gay Black woman, to speak at the school in celebration of Black History Month. But her invitation was rescinded when the school suddenly closed for the day over alleged threats of protests about a member of the LGBTQ community promoting same-sex marriage. Shortly afterward, Pierce, also an Immaculata alumnus, asked Alston if she would be interested in delivering her Immaculata speech at NorthStar instead. (After an outcry from Immaculata parents and students, the school re-invited her as well.)
“It’s a part of our responsibility to elevate people who are in alignment with our vision,” Nnenna says, referring to people such as Alston and North Carolina poet laureate Jaki Shelton Green, who led NorthStar’s inaugural Sunday service on February 17. “Now, if there is a woman in McDougald Terrace who’s feeding kids all summer out of her pocket when there’s no free school lunch, you can bet that she’ll be up here [speaking] one Sunday, and we’re going to hand her a check and hug her and tell her thank you. We can’t wait for INDY Week to tell us who is important. We know who is important.”