Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Real Hope in Chicago

I was having a conversation with the Dean at Northern Seminary, and she asked, "Have you ever heard of the Lawndale Community and Wayne Gorden?"

When I said that I hadn't, she began to tell the story. I listened in that way you listen when something seems too good to be true. "Surely, this story was embellished? Surely, all this can't be true. Surely, I would have heard of it?" Nope. It's all true.  It IS too good to be true, and I hadn't heard of it.

She told the story of Wayne Gorden, a grain-fed Iowa boy who felt God's call to work in the inner city. After graduating from Wheaton, Gorden took a job at Farragut High School in the Lawndale community in west Chicago. High crime, low money, and lots of despair. The community was the poster child for urban blight. Gordon taught history and earned the nickname he still goes by today, "Coach." Coach Gorden wanted to make a difference in this community. He truly believed that the community didn't have to be the way it was.  By the grace of God, it could be different.

It started innocently enough.  He began to lead Bible studies with his players, and they began to talk about what could be done to change the Lawndale community. They asked the group of students and others, "Why don't people go to church?" Four main reasons were given:

  1. They didn't have nice clothes
  2. They didn't have money to give
  3. They were angry at God
  4. The church wasn't doing anything in the community

So, Coach and that small group of believers started the "Lawndale Community Church" in 1978.  You can wear what you like. You can give money if you would like, but no plate is passed. You can come and learn the true power of the gospel.  And with dreams of changing the world, they started with a single washer and dryer which provided a safe place to wash clothes.  That need (and solution) came from the community. They saw a need, and (miraculously) God met that need.

Over the past 30+ years, they have recognized more needs, and they have started more ministries. They started the Hope House to help those battling drug addiction. The began reclaiming and restoring houses and apartments. They have creative ways to provide home ownership for families to help them cover closing costs and apartment opportunities for people who need help saving up for a down payment.  They have after school programs for kids and summer camps (their Garden Club). They have a nice size, multipurpose auditorium, but they have to meet in the gym for worship on Sundays (and they have to have two services) because of the numbers.

When I visited two weeks ago, I got to see one their first rate medical clinics, their gym, refurbished houses & apartments.  I ate lunch at Lou Malnati's, and enjoyed great Chicago style pizza. You wouldn't expect a restaurant of that reputation to be located in a community like Lawndale, but Coach told the owners that Lawndale didn't have a good place to sit down an eat, so they should open their tenth restaurant in Lawndale as a tithe to God. The owners did.

I met ministers in leadership roles in the church who a decade ago were in the Lawndale Hope House battling drug addiction. 

A few years ago, Northern Seminary provided opportunities for people in this area to continue education.  Some of the courses on community development in the seminary curriculum were offered in the Lawndale facility.  Seminary students began taking classes along with community ministers and residents who wanted to earn a certificate. These ministry and community development classes have been received very well, but when Northern asked what else they could offer, the resounding answer came back, "We want more Bible!"

This fall, I will be teaching the very first "Exploring the Bible" class offered in the Lawndale community on Monday nights as an adjunct for Northern Seminary. This is going to be a busy fall (I am already teaching an extra class at Judson!).  But I couldn't say no.  There is something special about that place.  A miracle has taken place. God is moving, and I just have to be there. I came home from my visit humbled, challenged, convicted...

I was humbled because I had witnessed the actual transformative power of the gospel. I saw grace. Real, tangible, transformative, powerful grace. I saw it. I shook grace's hand. I ate its pizza. I saw its gym. I wanted to stand there, just hoping that a little grace would splash on me. Just let me have the crumbs that fall from the table. It was moving in a way I hadn't been moved in some time.

I was challenged and convicted as well. You see, I saw the limits of this revitalization.  I saw where houses and apartments fell into disrepair again. Coach's influence ends, and the blight remains. After seeing what happened in Lawndale, all I could think was, "But it doesn't have to be this way." We can get so cynical and want to throw up our hands and give up. "What can we do?" "It's always going to be this way." "That's just the way it is."

No. I have seen that it doesn't have to be that way. There are still miracles. I have seen them.

I look forward to this fall (and it scares me a little too). My family and I were invited to worship with them some Sunday, and I can't wait. 

Coach put the story of the Lawndale Miracle in a book about a decade ago. "Real Hope in Chicago" is a great story...even greater when you remember that the miracle has continued for over a decade afterward and is continuing. The story of my trip to Lawndale is much like any story of an encounter with Christ. I was amazed, convicted, empowered, and I will not be the same.


"...we were there, taking it all in—we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen! And now we're telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us." 1 John 1:1-2 (The Message)