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SearchLight: Thousands flood Chicago with gospel’s hope

CHICAGO (BP)–The set-up team arrived at Grant Park along Lake Michigan to assemble the stage that a truck driver was scheduled to deliver at 3 that morning. They had only four hours before the performances for the all-day SearchLight celebration would kick in.

There was only one problem. The stage was nowhere in sight. For whatever reason, the driver had not delivered it.

SearchLight, planned as a massive evangelistic sweep designed to communicate the gospel to the more than 8 million people who live in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, seemed as though it was getting off to a bad start.

But rather than being a harbinger for disaster, the stage fiasco turned into a testimony of what God’s people can do when they all work together, said Phil Miglioratti, the coordinator of the Strategic Focus Cities effort in Chicago this summer, of which SearchLight is the centerpiece.

Early morning volunteers dispatched a truck to an around-the-clock hardware store to pick up two-by-fours, plywood sheets, saws, hammers, drills and everything else needed to build a stage on the spot. “They probably cleaned out Home Depot,” Miglioratti said.

Several members of a Southern Baptist disaster relief unit, on hand to pass out water and be prepared to handle any emergencies, were handed their first assignment. Several were carpenters and knew how to build the stage. Another volunteer had skills as a foreman and organized the makeshift construction team. Shortly after 11 a.m., the first performers stepped on stage only a few moments behind schedule.

That same spirit of cooperation, often among Christians who had just met each other that day, was reflected time and again in hundreds of activities July 8 led by thousands of volunteers communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ in the Chicago metro region. As the first city to be designated by the Southern Baptist Convention as one of its Strategic Focus Cities, Chicago has been the focus of hundreds of grassroots evangelistic initiatives this summer. With local Baptist leaders beating the drum for months now, Christians from across the country converged on the Windy City with the goal of each person sharing the gospel with at least 10 people.

Estimates for the day counted more than 5,000 volunteers serving in the four Baptist associations in northeast Illinois: Chicago Metro, Fox Valley, Lake County and Three Rivers. While the total fell short of the 100,000 Christians that local organizers had initially envisioned, they represented — as one organizer described them — a modern-day Gideon’s Army ready to tell people about God’s love for them.

One way some teams reflected that love was through dozens of evangelistic block parties held throughout the region. At Evening Star Missionary Baptist in Chicago’s West Englewood neighborhood, hundreds came to a block party, one in a series of summer outreach events by the 1,300-member congregation. Evening Star members were joined by nearly 150 members of Second Baptist in Springfield, Mo. The two congregations have participated in mutual exchanges with each other for more than two years.

Children played games, had their faces painted and watched puppet shows; adults flocked to hear the church’s gospel choir. Down the street at a neighborhood ministry, Evening Star and Second Baptist members shared their faith with adults making crafts. Others went out in pairs to communicate the gospel door-to-door, giving out copies of the “Book of Hope,” a booklet of selected Bible passages, and CDs featuring the Evening Star choir.

Nearly 1,000 neighbors came into contact with the church through the various outreach efforts.

“I know how it feels to be left out and ignored. I don’t want my church to ever lose that,” said Evening Star pastor Vesta Dixon, the oldest of seven children who remembers standing in soup kitchen lines with his family after his mother and stepfather separated. Outreach events, Dixon said, “keep us aware of the fact that we exist not just to have church, but to do evangelism.”

Three people became Christians during conversations with Second Baptist’s Phil Harris and an Evening Star member. “I’m in hell already,” one young man told Harris as he chose to seek another way of living. “We were two strangers God put together,” Harris said. Another two women came forward after Dixon gave an invitation following the choir concert.

On the playground at Aurora’s Hill Elementary School, hundreds of youngsters frolicked from one game to the next at a free carnival, where organizers are hoping to launch a new church. More than 30 people from the Rehoboth Baptist Association in southern Illinois traveled for more than four hours to help organizers with the festival. They began their morning by scouring the neighborhood for children to invite to the festivities.

Brandon Radford, who attends Oconee Baptist Church, helped youngsters lift makeshift fishing poles over a backdrop while his behind-the-scenes partner attached colorful prizes to each pole. Jessica Briggs, a youth at Woburn Baptist Church in Greenville, carefully painted rainbows and other decorations on the faces of eager toddlers. Joe Lawson, director of missions for the Rehoboth association, helped children toss beanbags through an upright hula hoop. As youngsters played, Christian music from dc Talk and Michael W. Smith blared out of a couple of speakers powered by a portable generator.

Curtis Avenue Baptist in Joliet, Ill., held a similar function in the afternoon with games, food and face-painting. Singers performed Christian tunes around a piano as adults rested on rows of metal chairs. Many of their children and grandchildren were getting rid of their seemingly limitless energy, bouncing in a large, inflatable room on the back lawn.

The day before in nearby Channahon, Randy and Karen Blan organized a pig roast that attracted about 350 neighbors. A church youth group from Ames, Iowa, helped entertain the kids with games, including a highly popular dunking booth. “Every time I looked up, there was someone else I didn’t know. It was incredible,” Karen Blan said. The event helped generate names of about 15 people who said they would be interested in attending a new church planned for the area.

First Baptist Church of Calumet City combined a late-afternoon carnival with a soccer camp held earlier in the day. The church organized games and served food, including Italian beef sandwiches and snow cones, free of charge. About 25 children attended the soccer clinic, held at Thornton Fractional North High School, across the street from the church. A combined basketball and cheerleading camp was planned for the following week.

Earlier in the day, volunteers distributed 1,800 copies of the Book of Hope. The church also had “prayer warriors inside praying” for God to be glorified throughout the day, said First Baptist’s pastor, Bill Whitford. Two groups — one from South Central and Southwest Baptist Associations in Michigan and the other from Briarlake Baptist Church, Decatur, Ga. — were on hand.

About two dozen people met at Iglesia Bautista Vida Nueva (New Life Baptist Church) in Elgin to pass out copies of the Gospel of John in Spanish. Julio Cortez, who’s been the pastor for 11 years at this downtown church near the Fox River, teamed up local church members with out-of-town volunteers to distribute the booklets door-to-door. Some hopped into their cars and headed to nearby Marengo, Ill., where Vida Nueva is trying to start a new congregation.

Henry Tarco, a member of Vida Nueva, stayed closer to the church. He started talking to several young men drinking beers in a driveway. He gave each of them a Spanish-language gospel and invited them to church. He captured their attention when he mentioned how he would like to see a soccer team started at the church. “If we can get them into a league,” he said later, “we can share Jesus with them after the games.”

More door-to-door work was going on in Joliet, where more than two dozen people from four churches in the Nine Mile Baptist Association gave away more than 40 copies of the Jesus video, said Rob Pochek, pastor of First Baptist Church, Nashville, Ill. Their work generated 15 or so prospects for Curtis Avenue Baptist Church in Joliet. Members of Bethel Baptist of Troy also went door-to-door in Joliet.

In Lake County Baptist Association, which is in the northeastern section of the Chicago metro area, the emphasis was on establishing community relations. In Gurnee and Lake Villa, 17 volunteers went from house to house, arms loaded down with door hangers. Each contained a copy of the Book of Hope and information about LakePointe Church.

LakePointe is a new regional church that will begin to meet on Sept. 10. The Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board and Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church of Lynchburg, Va., are giving the new congregation a combined half-million dollars over the next two years to give it a jump start.

“The volunteers were a tremendous help in getting the word out about our new church,” said Kevin Garber, LakePointe’s pastor. “It was an exhilarating experience to be in personal contact with many, many families, the majority of which had no church affiliation.”

In Libertyville, members of Crossroads Church knocked on doors and passed out free cups of hot coffee to meet people in their community. They distributed information about the church and prayed with several families.

While neighborhood activities focused on door-to-door witnessing and block parties, Chicago’s urban concentration provided an opportunity for witnessing in public spaces like the Lincoln Park Zoo, which draws more visitors than any other zoo in the world. At the zoo entrance, 11 members of the Illinois Woman’s Missionary Union, including Jane Raphael of Third Baptist Church, Granite City — also known as Blue Bell the Clown — gave away flying discs, you-are-special stickers and balloon figures to children.

They also gave adults the Book of Hope, featuring a map to the nearest Southern Baptist congregation, The Point. “We’ve done this type of thing for 20 years working with Uptown Baptist Church,” said Evelyn Tully, director of women’s missions and ministries for the Illinois Baptist State Association. Later, the women gave stuffed animals to children at Cook County Hospital.

“It’s not easy,” said Carla Still of Chicago, who handed out flying discs and Books of Hope along the North Avenue Beach trail. “There is some resistance. People have their guards up. You have to let God work through you.” Soon, Still found herself talking with Tama Zambole and her three children from Bartlett. The 30-something employee of a broker firm was looking for a new church and seemed interested in the contemporary worship style featured at The Point, a seeker-sensitive church near the city’s young, affluent Gold Coast.

On the beach itself, a youth group from Thomasville Baptist Church in Alabama sculpted a cross in the sand — a conversation starter for passersby. Youth pastor Buff McNickle had been looking for a mission experience for the church’s youth group when he received SearchLight materials in the mail. “I had been praying about it,” he said. “I looked at [the materials] and said, ‘That’s it.'” In addition to beach witnessing, the youth gave away Books of Hope in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. “It was exciting,” said 15-year-old Liz Nelson.

By late afternoon, more than 200 people converged at the Festival of Hope celebration site along Lake Michigan. Although the Lake Shore Drive freeway effectively segregated the Christian event from the thousands of people at the Taste of Chicago culinary festival, the lakefront path still brought visitors within range.

As participants sang praise songs and prayed for the city, volunteers gave cups of cold water to people strolling by. Others offered living water. Eva Jantz, of Immanuel Baptist in Butler, Mo., spoke for nearly an hour with Christian, a German visitor who rollerbladed along the lakefront. Jantz and her husband had debated about attending the event, but she insisted. “This is a mission field,” she said. “We’ve got to go.”

And as local leaders review and analyze the statistics from all those people who, like Jantz, knew they had to go to SearchLight, perhaps best summarized by Miglioratti as a “gloriously exhausting” event, the ultimate impact cannot be calculated. “We’ll never know all that God did here today,” Miglioratti said.
Baptist Press’ initial SearchLight stories were posted on 7/10/00. (BP) photos to be posted in the BP photos section of sbc.net website.

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  • Michael Leathers