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Volunteers discover an adventure of faith through urban ministries

CHICAGO (BP)–When outsiders drive through Humboldt Park, the urban neighborhood that the Chicago Grace Place calls home, many see only the problems: drug trafficking, prostitution and gangs. When Tammy Addington, Grace Place’s director, looks at that same scene, she sees one face at a time — the single mother struggling to raise her children; the gang member crying out for attention; the hungry child needing a hot meal.

And that’s how Grace Place is having an impact on this community-one life at a time. A few months ago, the ministry was a hot spot of activity- the site of an evangelistic block party that drew more than 400 people on July 8. That’s when thousands of Christians from across the country converged on Chicago and its suburbs for SearchLight, an evangelistic thrust into the Windy City and the focal point of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Strategic Focus Cities emphasis for Chicago.

More than 140 people made decisions to become Christians over the weekend of the block party. Four student missionaries assisted Grace Place over the summer, and 16 mission teams from churches all over the nation helped renovate its building and conducted a four-week day camp for children and teen-agers.

Today, the scene is quieter. Addington and a small core of volunteers, mostly women, faithfully staff the three-story building at the corner of North Rockwell and West Hirsch so it’s open to the community Tuesdays through Fridays. They stock a clothes closet and food pantry for the community. They operate a job-training room with the help of missionary Carla Still. Erasto Hernandez tackles the lion’s share of the ongoing maintenance and renovation to keep the building in shape. Grace Place just began opening its doors on Mondays, and plans are in the works to open on Saturdays.

Grace Place is a community outreach ministry that one day, Addington hopes, will be a self-sustaining church. The ministry’s goal is to establish relationships with residents and develop ministries as they learn the community’s needs, all in an effort to help them see the importance of a personal and maturing relationship with Jesus Christ. Addington’s fiancé, Randy Barajas, a self-employed graphic designer who became a Christian four years ago, prepares messages for the Sunday-morning worship service in lieu of a pastor. But the heart of Grace Place is its weekday ministry and availability to the community, where more than half the adults don’t have a high-school diploma and are out of work.

“God’s building a strong foundation here,” Addington said. And that foundation comprises the other Christians who diligently staff Grace Place’s ministries and keep the building in sound shape. She has a strong bond with the volunteers at Grace Place and wants to see them develop mature relationships with Jesus Christ. Most of them are at Grace Place every Tuesday through Saturday, their preschool children in tow, to help out wherever they can and to nurture their spiritual lives through individual prayer and Bible study.

Those volunteers include Berlinda Laureano, a 29-year-old who wrestles with the difficulties that many women in the so-called “sandwich generation” face. She’s raising a 5-year-old daughter, Stephanie, and caring for a mother who’s in remission from cancer.

Laureano, who became a Christian over the summer, has “always tried my best to serve the Lord.” She lives out her faith in Jesus Christ by serving her community, including Tuesdays when Grace Place gives away donated bread and serves coffee and hot cocoa. “They pick up the bread, and we talk to them about the Lord,” she said. “We see how many people we can talk to about accepting Christ as Savior.”

Wanda Pitts, a 31-year-old mom with a 4-year-old son named Jordan, understands the hardships faced by people on the streets. Before her son was born, she had spent about two years as a homeless person. She also knows how God can make a radical difference in a person’s life, just like He did when she became a Christian about four years ago in her grandmother’s church. “I fell down, and He lifted me up to better than I was before.”

Now Pitts wants to tell others about how God can lift them up. Those opportunities arise as they meet physical needs in the community, whether it’s providing clothing or sharing a hot meal with someone who dropped in as they were preparing their lunch. “We just want to give them a little spiritual food,” she said. “We are looking for souls-souls that are hungry for the Lord.”

Faye Allen, a Christian for nine years, lives two blocks away from Grace Place and is a member of Sure Foundation Missionary Baptist Church. A mother of five children, Allen had been receiving pressure from the public aid office to do volunteer work there if she wanted to keep receiving financial help. The trip to the distant office would require two bus rides, and she couldn’t bring her younger kids. Through her volunteer work at Grace Place, Allen can count that time toward community service and is able to bring her children to the ministry.

Addington’s soft-spoken voice and demure appearance camouflage a boldness to follow God’s path no matter where it leads. Barajas recalls the time she phoned to say she planned to live on the third-floor of Grace Place in a neighborhood where six active gangs prowl the streets. Instead of talking her out of it, he told her, “Hey, you’re going to do what God tells you to do, which is why I love you anyway.” When the couple marries next May, he will move into the building with her.

That same mindset led the 36-year-old Addington to pass up comfortable job offers when she began to sense God was moving her life in a new direction. For six months, she was without work. She used that time to submerge herself in Bible study for eight to nine hours every day to more clearly understand God’s plan for her. Although she didn’t know why or how, Addington believed God was leading her to a home-based ministry in Humboldt Park.

Then an opportunity opened to work for the Chicago Metro Baptist Association helping churches start evangelism ministries. The position offered a small stipend that couldn’t cover her basic bills, but she knew God was leading her to accept it. At the beginning of this year, the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board transferred ownership of its building in Humboldt Park to the Chicago association. Addington was asked to direct the ministries there, and she moved into the building, which she and Barajas named Grace Place, in April. Its first ministry, a Bible study for children, began a few weeks earlier.

Addington grew up in Winchester, Ind., a rural town of a mere 5,000 people that’s far from any large cities, where she was a member of the First Church of the Nazarene. Her God-given passion for the city ignited when she visited Chicago in high school with her dad while in a Bible competition. “I didn’t see a lot of the city, but I fell in love with its people,” she said. As a student at Olivet University in Kankakee, about an hour south of Chicago, her zeal blossomed for Chicago as she spent every weekend working at a public-housing project in the city through the campus ministries division and a local church. “It’s just so obvious to see that everything God has done in my life to this point has been a part of preparing me for where He has me now,” she said.

Grace Place is in a community abounding with ministry opportunities where “God’s tremendously at work,” Addington said. With some 1,500 children attending a public grade school across the street and another several hundred children at a nearby preschool, Grace Place has great potential to connect children and their families with the gospel, she said. Every so often, several children visit Grace Place after school to read books and play games in an activity room.
The neighborhood has “a number of believers who stand up for the Lord, including teachers and administrators. They work hard and work together in the community.” Some from the community join Addington and the Grace Place volunteers every Friday morning when they spend one or two hours in prayer for the neighborhood and the ministry.

The community has been fairly receptive to Grace Place although “it’s been a task to connect with people, build some bridges and make them aware of what is happening,” Addington said. Meanwhile, she urges Christians to pray that she and other leaders will continue to seek God’s plans for the ministry. Other prayer needs are for people to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, for new Christians to become dedicated followers and for God to send other Christians to help the ministry.

“I believe we are right where we should be right now, and we will grow from there,” she said. “It’s an adventure of faith.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: URBAN PLUNGE.

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  • Michael Leathers