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Chicago church’s weekday service reaches influx of immigrants

CHICAGO (BP) – It started as a weekday worship service to their community, then it exploded as migrants arrived in Chicago.

“We’re riding the wave,” Uptown Baptist Church Pastor Nick Kim said of the swell of new residents who turned out for a Wednesday morning service. Kim referred to the surfing language used by famed pastor and church planter Henry Blackaby to describe a move of the Holy Spirit in his Canadian community. Uptown had a similar surge when the city suddenly became home to migrants from the southern U.S. border, and many showed up in his lakefront community.

Two years earlier, a Spanish-language congregation that had been gathering in the neighborhood lost its meeting space. Their pastor approached Uptown about using its facility, a stately Gothic building on the corner of West Wilson and North Sheridan in a historic neighborhood. With a neon sign outside and colorful banners with the name of Jesus in many languages inside, Uptown has unique structure – the building has a dividing wall between the sanctuary and the fellowship hall that opens to double capacity.

That became important when one weekday worship service became two – one in English and one in Spanish. At the peak more than 500 people packed the space for many weeks.

“It was more than our building could handle,” said Kim, formerly a leader in the local Baptist association who was called to pastor the church three years ago. “The number was overwhelming. At the same time, the Lord reminded us about the need for discipleship.”

Kim knew that their opportunity to reach migrants might not last “because they are transitory.”

“We knew we could share the Gospel and plant the seed and prepare them to grow as disciples later on as they moved on,” Kim said. “While they were here living in shelters for about six months, they were hearing the Gospel.”

That was the church’s intent from the beginning. As associate pastor Mark Jonesdescribed it, Kim and the elders were clear that the ministry must be a work of Uptown, not merely offering meeting rooms to a church planter.

“Our church members now have ownership of this new work of God,” Jones said. “Initially, our members didn’t understand this service was an extension of UBC, but now they do. We have between 12-15 of our members attending and serving at the service each Wednesday.”

At its peak above 500 in January, the church was giving fast food gift certificates to every attender. Even on snow days when kids were out of school, the church building was packed for the services of teaching and worship and testimonies. Uptown’s ministry has shifted now, offering a noontime meal five days a week for about 100 people, and a bilingual seminary student, Ariel Heredia from Logan Square, teaches messages heavy on discipleship.

“We may disagree how migrants got here, but they’re here and they need the Gospel,” said Kim. “And that’s who we are – a church that accepts everyone.”

As the Uptown neighborhood sees a simultaneous wave of gentrification, Kim is looking to reach young professionals who are moving in as well. “We know how to reach the hungry who understand their need, but we have to reach the people who don’t know they have need because they have stuff,” Kim said. “They need the Gospel too.”

This article originally appeared in the Illinois Baptist.