The fire started about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night in the 1400-block of Woodlawn in south suburban Ford Heights. On Thursday, many of the church's 1,400 members vowed to rebuild.
"I'm hurt because I love this church. I love the people," said church member Latonia Elston.
"Everything is completely gone, completely gone," said Kevin Fairbanks, brother of the church's pastor.
The sanctuary is one of three buildings destroyed by the fire. Investigators preliminary called the fire suspicious because it began in the vacant house of the church's founder and quickly spread to another home, then the church.
"We have the fire marshal's office on the way. They'll make a cause and origin on the fire itself," said South Chicago Heights Fire Chief Larry Nardoni.
Phone calls to 9-1-1 for help first began around 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night while about a dozen or so church members held Bible study inside.
"I rushed in and told them there was a fire on the side of the church and everyone rushed out," said Joshua Franklin, who witnessed the fire.
Two volunteer Ford Heights firefighters arrived and immediately requested backup. In all, six fire departments were called to the scene.
On Thursday, church members salvaged what they can, while expressing frustration over the loss of the family ministry that began in the 1970s.
"It could have been prevented if they would have been here sooner. But because there are a lack of funds in this community, you can see things are not as they need to be," said Pastor Daniel Franklin, II.
Residents said the church is a beacon for the impoverished community.
"They give out food. The Franklins, they do a lot for this community period. They do a lot," said Patricia Walker, a neighborhood resident.
Despite the setback, they plan to continue with their ministry.
"There's nothing we can't come back from. We're resilient people. God has blessed us to do this. He will continue to bless us," said church Deacon Ricky Hughes.
Police also had to evacuate two people who were sleeping from the small residence that caught fire. Church leaders are planning a community meeting this weekend to discuss plans for the future. They say they plan to rebuild.