CHICAGO (BP)–A group of young men near the Chicago Grace Place told lay street evangelist Travis Johnson of San Antonio, Texas, they were afraid to come to a block party at the ministry center July 8.
“They said the guys on Rockwell [Street] are shooting people,” Johnson said, referring to the penalty for intrusion onto another gang’s turf in an area that has become known throughout the city for its street violence.
But for several hours on July 8, the Grace’s Place’s small fenced parking lot in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood became an oasis of hope for about 400 children and adults. There was food, Christian entertainment and a constant witness to the life-changing power of Christ By the end of the day, at least 141 individuals had responded with a prayer of commitment to accept Christ as Lord of their lives.
That, in microcosm, was the spirit of SearchLight — a one-day effort that was one of the centerpieces of Southern Baptists’ Strategic Focus Cities evangelism and church planting emphasis in Chicago.
There were more than just block parties, of course. Volunteers assisted local churches with door-to-door visitation, shared their faith on beaches, parks and city streets, distributed copies of the evangelistic booklet “The Book of Hope,” and joined in a joint “Festival of Hope” on the lakefront at the end of the day. Ultimately, hundreds made immediate professions of faith in Christ and tens of thousands more across the city were introduced to the churches and their message of hope.
(Editors’ Note: The number of decisions will be updated Wednesday.)
“I’m gloriously exhausted,” said SearchLight coordinator Phil Miglioratti, taking a break during a contemporary Christian concert on the shore of Lake Michigan that closed out the day’s activities.
The approximately 1,500 volunteers from outside the area was significantly lower than earlier goals of up to 100,000, but involvement of local Southern Baptist and evangelical churches boosted the number of volunteers to an estimated 5,000.
“I think our churches have been given hope that we can do something by stretching our faith, coloring outside the lines,” he said.
Strategic Focus Cities — which continues through the end of the year in both Chicago and Phoenix — is an evangelistic and church starting effort of the North American Mission Board in cooperation with local churches and associations to help channel volunteers and other resources to two major cities each year.
The day of SearchLight began at Chicago’s Montrose Beach, where several local churches hosted a joint baptism service in Lake Michigan. After a worship service on the beach, Brian Bakke of Uptown Baptist Church led the group of new Christians out into the lake for the baptism as the crowd watched several hundred feet away on the shore. Afterwards, volunteers distributed Frisbee-style flying discs imprinted with the gospel.
Geno Miller, a member of Uptown Baptist Church in Chicago, was quick to slip into Spanish when speaking with the largely Hispanic families on the beach about Christ. He said he is trying to learn the language to be more effective in reaching his community. “It’s amazing to see the expression on the people’s face when you speak their language,” he said.
At the Grace Place block party, one of those accepting Christ was James Wilson, a man who had come by about a week earlier looking for work and had spent the week working alongside volunteers. Saturday afternoon, he said he wanted what they had.
“Since I’ve been working and meeting all these Christians, I just felt that this is where I needed to be. And I’m not ashamed of it,” said Wilson, who later brought his sister and a friend to the block party.
Grace Place itself is a product of the Strategic Focus Cities effort, which provided stipend funding for center director Tammy Addington to move into the association-owned building this past April to start developing the ministry center. The building has been used by a Hispanic congregation, but a pastor has been secured for a new multicultural English language service that will be integral to the center’s ministry efforts.
“The reason we’re here is to win people to Jesus,” said Addington. “We want people to have personal relationships with God and to be able to grow in that relationship by being part of the church. We desire to meet the needs of the whole person — including the physical, emotional and educational needs.”
About 100 volunteers who met at the Household of Faith Christian Assembly in the southern suburb of Markham were greeted with a “Welcome to Macedonia” by pastor Lawrence D. Haskin.
Members of Household of Faith and neighboring Bel-Aire Baptist Church joined about 35 volunteers from Chicago’s New Morning Star Baptist Church and 40 volunteers from Michigan in going door-to-door distributing “The Book of Hope,” a gospel presentation including passages of Scripture from throughout the Bible.
Volunteers made the outreach a time of praise and celebration as participants walked behind a pickup truck, driven by Haskin, carrying a drummer and keyboard player who led the group in praise and worship choruses as they went door-to-door throughout the neighborhoods.
Haskin said the day was made complete when he led two men to make professions of faith in Christ while he guarded the musical equipment in the back of the truck as the other volunteers disbursed throughout Rosner Park.
“This is the greatest time in the history of the church since the Book of Acts,” Haskin said. In 22 years of ministry, Haskin said this is the first time he’s witnessed blacks, whites and Hispanics “going out hand in hand sharing the gospel.”
“Just seeing the body of Christ coming together like this is fantastic,” he said.
Teresa Washburn, a member of Level Park Baptist Church, Battle Creek, Mich., said the SearchLight outreach marked the first time she had participated in door-to-door evangelism.
“It was nothing but positive,” she said. “I look forward to doing this again. We totally crossed all racial boundaries. There was no black or white.”
James A. Glidewell, director of missions for the South Central and Southwestern Baptist associations, based in Portage, Michigan, led 125 volunteers from his association representing 13 churches.
Glidewell said the call to take the gospel to Chicago was similar to Paul’s call to Macedonia as recorded in Acts 16:9. “We couldn’t ignore our neighbors saying ‘come help us.'”
Establishing community relations was the focus of SearchLight efforts in Lake County, to the north of Chicago.
In the Gurnee and Lake Villa area, 17 volunteers passed out more than 650 “Book of Hope” door hangers to increase awareness of and publicize LakePointe Church. LakePointe is a new regional church start that will begin meeting Sept. 10, sponsored jointly by Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., and the North American Mission Board.
“The volunteers were a tremendous help in getting the word out about our new church,” said Kevin Garber, pastor of LakePointe. “It was an exhilarating experience to be in personal contact with many, many families, the majority of which had no church affiliation.”
To the southwest, churches in Three Rivers Baptist Association also distributed “The Book of Hope” and sponsored three block parties that brought more than 700 residents. Two of those block parties, in the Joliet area, will help build a core group for new churches, according to director of missions Ray Fuller.
“We’ve had over 10,000 contacts made by different groups … and we had 108 prospects in one of our four regions that were wanting to assist us in starting a new church,” he said.
In the northwest suburbs, Larry Wartzbaugh, director of missions for Fox Valley Baptist Association, said local church members — along with staff from the Illinois Baptist State Association — focused on distributing about 23,000 copies of the Book of Hope and about 2,800 copies of the Gospel of John in Spanish. Four of the five new churches being started through Strategic Focus Cities in the association are Hispanic congregations.
By mid-afternoon, volunteers from other locations began assembling at the lakefront site of the Festival of Hope, which since 11 a.m. had been providing a steady stream of gospel choirs and other music groups. The festival site was in a field located strategically between Grant Park — where the “Taste of Chicago” attracted thousands of visitors and many Southern Baptist volunteer witnesses — and Navy Pier, where fireworks were being displayed that night.
In late afternoon, participants celebrated with a service of praise and prayer — including a “Concert of Prayer” lifting up the city of Chicago and its people. Throughout the event, volunteers talked with passersby about Christ and why they were there.
A disaster relief team from the Illinois Baptist State Association provided free water.
The relatively low number of volunteers dissipated a concern by Chicago religious leaders about the Southern Baptist effort having the potential to spawn “hate crimes” against other religious groups.
“They felt like what we were doing was not threatening to their communities, and they’ve stated that publicly, so we really haven’t heard much about it,” said Jim Queen, director of missions for the Chicago Metropolitan Baptist Association.
Queen said one of the key rabbis opposing SearchLight — who lives in a high-rise apartment building overlooking the Festival of Hope site — came by and personally wished the group well.
Miglioratti, the SearchLight coordinator, said it is still far too early to assess the overall impact of the event or others planned for the remainder of the summer — including a crusade by Los Angeles pastor E.V. Hill and a series of neighborhood circuses being sponsored by local churches.
“I think the impact is when our churches go back in our communities for prayer, care and share,” he said, referring to a three-pronged focus for outreach efforts. “I think they are going to find the people more receptive, some will be less resistant and some strongholds have been broken.”
“The most exciting moment of the day to me,” said Miglioratti,” is when I walked up to the volunteer tent, and someone who had just gone to the Taste [of Chicago] put in a decision card and said, ‘We just led someone to Christ.'”
Lee Weeks and Michelle Brummitt contributed to this report.