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Church’s heart for Southside Chicago gets Strategic Focus Cities support

CHICAGO (BP)–The people of West Englewood are familiar with poverty and the crime that goes with it. But for a week last August in a big tent on 59th Street, hundreds also became familiar in a fresh way with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Hundreds recommitted their lives to Christ, 62 professions of faith were reported and the churches of the community united around a common passion for evangelism.

The “Englewood Back-to-School Crusade” was the fulfillment of a longtime dream for Vesta Dixon, pastor of Evening Star Baptist Church located in a converted industrial building across the street. And it was made possible by Southern Baptists across the country, through financial and other resources provided through Strategic Focus Cities/Celebrate Jesus 2000 efforts in Chicago.

“It was something that I had dreamed of doing … for years,” said Dixon, who hopes the crusade will expand in future years to eventually occupy the entire park across the street from the church. This year it will be held in the same field, with attendance anticipated to swell to as many as 1,000 each night because of the buzz created by last year’s event.

“The tent going up across the street had a greater impact than anything that has happened in this community besides CSX railroad,” Dixon said, referring to a large railroad yard adjacent to the church that he had a hand in attracting to the area — bringing both employment and redevelopment to a blighted industrial area.

Through the Strategic Focus Cities effort — coordinated by the North American Mission Board in cooperation with local churches and associations — Southern Baptists are directing resources and volunteer efforts toward church planting and evangelism in two major cities yearly. The first two cities being impacted are Chicago and Phoenix.

Dixon believes an open-air tent lowers the barriers, making the crusade “more sinner-friendly.”

“The uniqueness of the crusade is they do not have to dress up,” he said. “What we saw was people stopping on their way home from work. Instead of going home, they saw the crusade and got out of their cars.”

Food was given out after the crusade each evening for those who needed it, courtesy of a food bank operated out of Evening Star’s facilities. There were also activities for the children each afternoon. “We would have kids out in the park ministering to them from 4 to 7:30 each afternoon.”

The crusade also provided an opportunity for solidifying the Christian community. Seventeen evangelical churches participated, and Dixon expects more this year. Each night representatives of various churches shared responsibility for music, prayer and preaching. And it ignited a renewed passion for evangelism at Evening Star, which has about 500 people in worship on Sunday mornings.

“Our church is on fire, ready to do it again,” Dixon said. “It gave our church a sense of direction, a sense of need and a desire to do more evangelism.” The church has a goal of seeing 500 individuals led to Christ this year.

The crusade and other efforts related to Strategic Focus Cities have also further helped raise the profile of African American Southern Baptist churches, Dixon said. Nearly half of the congregations in the association are African American, more than any other group. Six of them have memberships of more than 1,500, the largest in the association by far.

As one of the principal organizers of the crusade and the congregation with the most trained evangelistic counselors, Evening Star assimilated many of those who accepted Christ. The general rule, Dixon said, was that anyone within five blocks of Evening Star was encouraged to attend there. Those outside of the area, while welcomed, were encouraged to consider attending an evangelical church closer to home.

Not all who joined the church have remained active, but the church recently implemented a new plan for reclaiming those who have gotten out of the habit of regular attendance. It’s part of an overall atmosphere at the church where everyone is expected to find a place of service, and everything the church does is focused on evangelism.

The value of the crusade and all of the church’s efforts was illustrated, Dixon said, after one of the new converts died unexpectedly last fall.

“That young lady was not in church, was an alcoholic and probably on her way to hell,” Dixon said. “The crusade changed her life.”

An additional (BP) photo is posted in the BP Photo Library. Photo title: MAKING A DIFFERENCE.

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  • James Dotson