WEEK OF PRAYER: The world comes to Chicago's Wicker Park
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."
The flabbergasted principal took him up on the offer. Every day in the beginning, Venable showed up at the school to help -- everything from tutoring to coaching sports and providing playground patrol.
Through its engagement with the school, Venable started a "Kidz Club" and "Friday Night Live" for children and youth on Friday evenings. Instead of roaming the streets, teens come for free food, basketball and a short Bible story. On average 50 youth and 20 elementary students attend.
And the community has taken notice. A local reporter discovered the young church plant was cleaning the toilets of businesses near Wicker Park. Soon Mosaic Chicago became known as "the toilet-cleaning church" -- a nickname welcomed by Venable because it demonstrates the community involvement and ministry he desires.
"Our measurement -- instead of asking how is our church doing -- is how is our city doing?" Venable said.
Yet most important, Venable wants to see people come to faith in Christ. He points to one particular local grandmother as an example. Venable first met her grandson -- one of the most troublesome kids in school -- in the principal's office. The boy started coming to Mosaic Chicago's Friday evening Kidz Club after seeing Venable carrying a stack of pizzas out of a carryout restaurant the day of the event. Through her grandson's involvement, the grandmother began attending regularly and has even gotten involved in a small group and in mission projects through the church.
"That's what we want to see in all these people's lives -- to go from not knowing Jesus to fully following Jesus and carrying out the Kingdom-disciple-society DNA in their lives," Venable said.
Venable realizes that kind of ministry has only happened because of Southern Baptists' giving through the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions.
"During these first three years of our church plant, Annie has been the biggest part of our support," Venable said. "It's allowed me to live here and support my family. Without NAMB and Annie, we wouldn't be here."
Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board. The annual Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 3-10, and the AAEO, provide support for Venable and other missionaries like him who serve on behalf of Southern Baptists in North America. With a goal of $70 million, this year's offering theme is "Whatever It Takes – Reaching the One." For more information, visit AnnieArmstrong.com. For more information about Scott Venable and the church he is starting, Mosaic Chicago, visit AnnieArmstrong.com/ScottVenable or MosaicChicago.org. For more information about getting involved in reaching Chicago with the Gospel, visit namb.net/Chicago.