No Matter the Cost

Chicago church/mission helps people find meaning and purpose


Donald lived on the streets of Chicago by day, and by night, he slept in a boat. Our boat. The craft had been donated to help support the Family Empowerment Centers (FEC) in Rogers Park, a diverse neighborhood adjacent to Lake Michigan. I called the police when I found Donald asleep in the cabin, since I did not know who he was and did not want to startle him and get shot. I decided not to press charges and invited him for lunch.

Christ made it very clear that the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. On these two commands, He said, hang all of the Law and the Prophets. Donald’s temporary residence in our boat made him our neighbor. As the executive director and senior pastor of FEC, I hired him to do some plumbing and had numerous conversations with him about Christ. At FEC our being and doing has a great impact on a complex urban American community.

Jesus followers often talk about living life with our neighbors in such a way that they feel valued and accepted and their lives take on new meaning and purpose as Christ is glorified. But how does one do that in a community with more than 63,000 people living within 1.8 square miles, where more than 40 primary languages are spoken and where a third are white, a third are African American and a third are Hispanic?

If these issues weren’t enough, FEC staff members deal with a factor that can be even more divisive. More than 20 percent of the families in Rogers Park live below the poverty level (an income below $22,050 for a household of four, increased by $3,740 per additional child),1 and more than 50 percent are from low-income households. However, one out of six households in our neighborhood makes more than $200,000 a year in total income, which intensifies the experience of poverty in any community. In Urban Ministry, authors Harvie M. Conn and Manuel Ortiz note that Mother Teresa suggested that the people of South Bronx suffered from much worse poverty than did those in Calcutta. Conn and Ortiz explain that living in the same city as some of the most prosperous people in the United States makes their own relative poverty all the harder for South Bronx residents to handle. This constant comparison leads to a poverty of identity, hopelessness and a sense of total failure and inferiority.2

What these authors write about in a broad sense is experienced daily within our community. It is no surprise that when young men are asked about their aspirations and dreams for adulthood, they speak about playing professional basketball but rarely include a vision for college or a specific career.

The answer to the question of how to live as Christ followers in Rogers Park is simple: laying aside the things that make us most comfortable, we (me, my wife, my family and other leaders) incarnate ourselves into the community. We weave ourselves into the fabric of the neighborhood in much the same way that our international workers embed themselves into their new communities. We take the time to sit with people regardless of their financial position, the color of their skin or the language they speak, and we pay attention to them. We notice them. We embrace them as valuable. We care for them the way Christ cares for us.

Our FEC programs expedite building relationships across traditional boundaries of culture, race and language. For example, in a community where fewer than half of freshman students graduate from high school within five years,3 parents are deeply concerned about their children’s educational needs. FEC has an after-school program to equip younger students with the skills they will need to succeed in school. During this program we provide recreational activities, up to an hour of tutoring, computer time, biblical life-skills lessons and a safe place for the kids to stay after school.

Also, TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) majors from the Moody Bible Institute teach English as a second language at FEC. Five or six nationalities are represented at various levels of learning during an average semester, and the majority show steady increases in their English abilities.

FEC coordinates several events each year that allow us to interact with our community in “nonthreatening” (nonchurch) situations with the hope that we will have the opportunity to present the gospel. Our Family Fest is a day of fun activities in the park with free food, face painting, balloons, music, inflatable bounce houses and everyone’s highlight—the pinewood derby. The pinewood derby has had up to 120 children make cars (the majority of whom do not have parental involvement in the process), and this often becomes our first touch with the children’s parents.

During summer evenings, we host soccer camps for children, which include a vacation Bible school with gospel presentations between the soccer activities. These are made possible with the help of short-term ENvision teams (www.envision-culture.com). While the team members run the actual camp, adults connected with the center socialize with the children’s parents. ENvision teams not only serve us, but also, because of our commitment to mission, we invest heavily in training them. We create a dynamic cross-cultural experience that we hope will inspire the team members to return to their own churches and communities with a vision to love their neighbors and carry out the Great Commission locally.

Organic, missional living takes us beyond our programs and events in bringing the gospel to our community. Ask people like Donald. After we befriended him, he ended up in jail, where he hit rock bottom but came to faith in Christ. About a year later he reemerged, stating that I had saved his life. He was now ready to be mentored, and we helped him into rehab shortly after that. His journey still has many ups and downs, but he knows that he is loved by us and has a place to turn for guidance. Missional living in an urban context is often very hard; the spiritual battles are intense, and the slim results from deep spiritual and physical investment sometimes make us wonder if the cost of proclaiming Christ in urban America—and for us in Rogers Park, Chicago—is worth it. But when I think such thoughts, the Holy Spirit often reminds me of the words of Jonathan Edwards (as quoted by Tim Keller in Ministries of Mercy): “If we be never obliged to relieve other’s burdens, but when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burden at all?” I remember Jesus living life with us in our world of sin, experiencing the pain of death so that we might know Him and a peace that passes understanding. All of a sudden I know that the efforts to see but one soul transformed by the power of Christ really is priceless.

How can we look at our urban communities—places where we have the opportunity to impact the world, where the majority of the people in America reside—and turn our backs because it costs too much?

1 http://www.atdn.org/access/poverty.html. Downloaded February 14, 2011.
2 Harvie M. Conn, Manuel Ortiz. Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City & the People of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: IVP Academic, 2001), 326.
3 http://www.cps.edu/Schools/Pages/school.aspx?unit=1570. Downloaded February 14, 2011.

Two years ago, we had our first contact with Salvador and Alejandra, first generation Hispanic immigrants to Chicago. Their children had such a great time at soccer camp that they decided to enroll them in our after-school and Awana programs. Alejandra signed up for our English classes that fall. During the holidays we distribute baskets of food to families in need in our community, and that year, Salvador and Alejandra were on our list. In each basket we include a book that points people toward Christ, so we placed a Spanish version of Rick Warren’s The Purpose of Christmas in their basket. In January 2010 we found out that Salvador had been laid off and was becoming depressed when they received the basket, and he proceeded to read the book. As they brought their children to the programs that month, they told us that they wanted to know more about Jesus. We began discipleship with them in Spanish, and they became followers of Jesus.

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