By Meredith Flynn
Grace Family Church, Chicago, celebrated its second anniversary in early 2021 with a worship service in the Art Deco theater they’ve called home for the last few months. But the young church has already been planted twice. At least, that’s how it feels to Pastor Jorge Rodriguez.
Originally from Caracas, Venezuela, Rodriguez lived in Chicago while he was a student at Moody Bible Institute. After planting a church in Miami, he returned to Chicago to start a new church in Rogers Park on the city’s north side.
What he couldn’t have anticipated was a global pandemic that would make a highly challenging endeavor even more so.
“I felt like I was replanting a church plant, a year into it,” Rodriguez said of a 2020 filled with virtual services and a location change for his church.
In Rogers Park, the challenges also brought new opportunities — to build relationships, develop deeper connections within a body of believers and to remember Christ’s promise to build His Church.
“Lord, this is Your church. … And I can trust You because You are much more invested in it than I ever can be,” Rodriguez said, recounting what the year taught him about God’s sovereignty and supporting grace. “That’s a message I’ve had to continually preach to myself.”
Guided by God
When Rodriguez and his family moved back to Chicago, one of their prayers was that God would guide them to a neighborhood where He wanted them to plant a church in the future. He did. Rodriguez and his wife, Belkis, found an apartment in Rogers Park, one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods and a hub for immigrants and refugees. There are 81 nationalities represented there, Rodriguez said, and 41% of homes are led by single parents. The neighborhood has a higher crime rate than others on Chicago’s north side and also is home to Loyola University. Rogers Park is transient, with people moving in and out all the time.
With a core team of 13 people, Grace Family Church launched on Jan. 13, 2019, in a Rogers Park elementary school. Randy Babb, now an elder at the church, said the early days were hectic and challenging, especially with all the administrative details required to establish a church. He recalled “so many days feeling like you’re backed into a corner, and all you can say with your palms raised is, ‘Lord, only You can provide for us.’”
Near the end of the first year, the church was reaching almost 60 people through worship services and Bible studies throughout the week. Then, just after the church’s first anniversary, their city shut down.
The school where Grace Family had been meeting closed their doors to students and to the church. Like almost all other congregations, Rodriguez’s church moved services online. And, he said, the planting process started all over again.
Church planters across Chicagoland experienced similar upheaval, said John Yi, Illinois Baptist State Association church planting catalyst. “Overwhelmingly now, most church plants are meeting in nontraditional spaces like theaters and schools,” he said. When those spaces shut down, churches couldn’t meet there either.
Missions teams that would have come to Chicago couldn’t travel to the city. Momentum, an important part of church planting, was hard to come by in 2020.
Yet throughout the pandemic, Illinois churches and church plants have worked to meet increased physical need. They have participated in massive food distributions, often aided by Illinois Baptist Disaster Relief and partnerships with other aid organizations.
“There are people hungry right now who have never been hungry before,” said Ken Wilson, IBSA church planting catalyst.
It’s a discouraging trend that other leaders have noted: people previously able to provide for themselves and their families have suddenly found themselves unable to do so.
The COVID-19 pandemic “amped up” the need for Christ in Rogers Park, Rodriguez said, and exacerbated some ongoing urban struggles.
It wasn’t just COVID-19 that exacerbated need in 2020, Rodriguez said. In response to racial unrest across the country, the church worked with like-minded churches to put together a peaceful prayer march attended by more than 2,000 people in June. Rogers Park was also rocked by gun violence in 2020. Even now, when there are shootings in the community, Grace Family members go to those locations to pray.
Along with an increased sense of desperation and anxiety, Rodriguez said, their neighbors are looking for tangible hope.
“God’s stubborn grace and mercy has providentially planted Grace Family Church at this unprecedented time in a community with these present needs. It will also be His grace which will grow us and propel us into mission, as Christ continues to call our lost brothers and sisters back home.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This article was originally published by Illinois Baptist. To read more articles like this on Illinois Baptists, visit illinoisbaptist.org. This article also appears in TAB News, a digital regional Baptist publication. For more information or to subscribe to the TAB News app, visit tabonline.org/TAB-News-app.