Nnenna and Phil Freelon and their son, Pierce, purchased an old church to fulfill a lingering dream. They call it NorthStar Church of the Arts. There’s power in that name.
The slaves looked for the North Star to locate the direction to freedom. They more than likely sang freedom songs to inspire their escape. They probably danced once they crossed the Ohio River.
You can’t talk about black life in America without discussing the arts. They form a complex union with spirituality and the quest for freedom that shapes the collective identity of black people. That identity has influenced how Americans sing, dance and use other arts to express the joy of freedom.
“NorthStar Church of the Arts is a place where spirituality and the arts are commingled,” says Nnenna, a multi-Grammy nominated jazz singer. “Creativity is a gift of the spirit, and its expression is one of the ways that we can explore our connection to the arts and [to one another]. NorthStar celebrates human kinship, love and diversity. Those who gather at NorthStar for our services reflect what community really looks like, and it gives me great hope for our future.”
Nnenna’s journey as a jazz artist and the path of her husband, Phil (who led the architectural team in the design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, among many other notable, local projects), have deep roots in Durham.
“We both had a strong desire to create a sustainable legacy of art and design in our beloved adopted hometown,” Nnenna says. “NorthStar is both a place and a grand idea that arts and spirituality are co-joined. … We are excited by the possibilities for NorthStar to be a place where [people of] all faiths, no faith and the spiritually curious can be in community and conversation.”
NorthStar is located at 220 W. Geer St. in the former Ephphatha Church, a Gothic Revival church constructed in 1930. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. NorthStar represents a space where the past, present and future collide to tell stories expressed through the arts. There is monthly programming that coincides with Third Friday events, as well as special programs like movie screenings, live music, photography exhibits and poetry readings on any given day.
Pierce is the creative director at NorthStar. He says his spirituality has been informed by the artistic, intellectual and loving people of the Durham community.
“We are blessed in this community to have a number of patron saints [who] are inspirations for NorthStar Church of the Arts,” Pierce says. “Folks who used art to transform, to heal, to build community and spread love. Folks like Baba Chuck Davis, Pauli Murray and Dr. Maya Angelou. We honor those ancestors by creating spaces for others to step into their creative spiritual energy and use it to transform.”
The leader of hip-hop band The Beast, Pierce was born and raised in Durham. His desire is for NorthStar to hold space for all the positive vibes that nurtured him.
“As a kid, I remember going to concerts at the Salaam Cultural Center, attending lectures with Black Panthers at B.N. Duke Auditorium, attending pancake suppers at St. Titus’ [Episcopal Church] and meeting interesting folks at the Know Bookstore,” he says.
Pierce, who ran an unsuccessful campaign to become Durham’s mayor in 2017, says that, while on the campaign trail, he connected with people from various communities and places of worship.
“I mentor hundreds of youth through Blackspace, [an Afrofuturism digital makerspace], and I’ve lectured at several of the area colleges and universities,” Pierce says. “I hope to leverage all of these experiences into curating artistic, political and community experiences at NorthStar Church of the Arts.”
NorthStar is a safe place to pray and play. If you are in search of freedom, look up, find the NorthStar and find joy on the other side of limitations.