April 16, 2014
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CHICAGO (BP) -- Looking around Chicago's Wicker Park, just about every kind of person is there.

Maurice Burr, 44, is a one-time high school football star who spends his days in a wheelchair because of gang violence. Charlie the drifter is a homeless man who wanders through the neighborhood warning people of government conspiracies.

A young highly educated well-dressed couple come to the park to walk their dog and let their young son play. There's also the senior citizen couple who sit at the park to get some fresh air before heading back to the nearby assisted living center.

And thanks to the generosity of Southern Baptists, there's a North American Mission Board church planter there as well.

"It's the most eclectic place you can imagine," NAMB church planter Scott Venable says. "It has drug dealers and businesspeople. When we prayerwalked as we were looking for a place to start the church and we got to Wicker Park, we just knew it was it."

Wicker Park is both a large park off of Chicago's North Damen Avenue and one of the most famous neighborhoods in the Windy City. Called by Forbes the fourth coolest neighborhood in the country, it's the kind of place where government housing is just a few blocks down from million-dollar homes.

It's also a place that needs churches. Chicagoland -- the 10 Illinois counties that surround the city -- has one Southern Baptist church for every 31,791 people. Evangelicals make up just 10 percent of the population. The Wicker Park neighborhood itself had just four small evangelical churches for about 23,000 people before Venable's arrival.

And, for Venable, it was just the right place. The inner city had long been within his sights. He remembers serving in the Dallas inner city as a young person and feeling a kinship to the culture, music and speed of urban life.

With a vision for starting a church that would change its city, Venable and his then-fiancé Ashley began praying about where God might want to use them before they even married.

When the couple visited Chicago around Easter of 2009 -- and Wicker Park specifically -- it seemed that God was speaking clearly to them. Before the two said "I do" that May, they decided Chicago would be their new home.

After arriving in Chicago, the Venables went first to a local school in the Wicker Park area and offered to serve. The offer first took the principal by surprise. She was accustomed to having church plants want to use their facility to host church services -- not offer free help.

"We're a new church here and really small," Venable told the principal. "We want to help this school become what you want it to be. We want to invest in the community. I like your vision. I like your dream. We want to help pour into the life of these kids." Read More
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