On a family prayer walk, Edgar Rodriguez helped his children see their neighborhood in a new light. The pastor of New City Fellowship in Chicago’s Humboldt Park asked his kids what they saw as they walked.
“Our oldest said, ‘I see children,’” Edgar said. His response: “This is your mission right here.”
In the second-deadliest neighborhood in Chicago, Edgar and his wife, Sonia, are raising their seven children to play an integral role in transforming their community by sharing—and living— the gospel.
They’ve heard the questions about living in a dangerous place, Edgar said. “Why don’t you move out of there?”
“We believe that we have the solution to change their hearts, which is Jesus. Everything else is going to fall short,” said the church planter who launched New City Fellowship three years ago.
“We can’t leave.”
Sonia says, “If I’m giving my children the gospel, and they can give the gospel to another child, why wouldn’t I train them up for other people in the neighborhood to possibly know Christ?”
Edgar didn’t want to go back to his old neighborhood to plant a church. He was frustrated with the people—“his own people,” he said. Humboldt Park is undergoing gentrification, meaning coffee shops are popping up, along with more expensive housing. And a new demographic—hipsters—are joining large African-American and Hispanic populations.
Spiritually, though, religious tradition still had more influence than culture-impacting gospel ministry. But the couple sensed God was moving them back to the neighborhood where they both spent at least part of their childhoods.
“God, forgive me for being like Jonah,” Edgar remembers praying.
“We knew the mess that existed, but through prayer and counsel and things of that nature, we just kept telling one another that it makes sense. If the darkness in this neighborhood is what it is, and we’re light, it’s actually kind of foolish and cowardice to leave it like it is.”
Three years ago, the Rodriguezes started New City Fellowship in their apartment. Once they outgrew the space, they moved into the Humboldt Park headquarters of the Chicago Metro Baptist Association.
Planting a church in a tough neighborhood has its challenges, especially when you open your own home like the Rodriguezes have tried to do. They’ve invited drug addicts and dealers to share meals at their table. When a former friend reached out for help and a place to stay, they let him live with them for a while. That particular encounter resulted in Edgar sustaining a blow to the head when the man threw his phone at him in anger.
Months later, Edgar saw the man again. He walked up to him and reached out his arms. “Who would I be if I would not extend to you what Jesus extended to me?” the pastor explains now.
As they engage their neighbors, the couple exercises wisdom when it comes to protecting their children, but they say total security is an unreachable goal. They move forward holding out the gospel, and trusting God to work.
“Even at my best as a husband, as a father, as a protector, I can’t bullet-proof my family,” Edgar says. “When you look at Scripture, God didn’t avoid putting his people in the world. He gave his son knowing what he was going to face.”
New City Fellowship meets on Sunday for worship, but the church also gathers several times during the week for Bible study and meals together. It’s an approach they call “life on life,” which Edgar admits sounds a little cliché, even to them. But it’s a way to describe how they’re trying to integrate gospel-centered community into the everyday rhythms of life—eating, shopping, laundry, etc. What can their small group of Christians do together, so that the gospel goes forward as they disciple each other?
Some people would say it’s too much, Edgar says, and it could be, if you’re going out of your way. But the things their church does together, they’re already doing.
“It’s not a burden for us, and it’s not too much for us. And other families are starting to realize, ‘I need this.’”
Opening their doors
In a small community three hours from Humboldt Park, Alan and Marie Marsh (below) are creating a permanent space to welcome their neighbors. When the Marshes moved to Macon, just south of Decatur, they didn’t settle in a traditional house. Instead, they purchased a century-old church building they plan to transform into a community center.
“We believe that wherever the Lord puts us is where we need to reach out,” said Marie, who, as a baker and artist, has big plans for the former Presbyterian church that sits in a neighborhood of quaint homes.
The Marshes live in an office/classroom wing that was added to the original sanctuary, and the family uses the sanctuary to host a “life group” of people from their church, Tabernacle Baptist in Decatur. Eventually, the space could include a library, coffee shop, and other spaces for people in Macon to come together and, as Marie put it, take a little break from their world.
“One thing that I feel like I’ve learned throughout the years is that there are hurting people everywhere,” she says. People might not want to walk into a church they’re new to, but her family can offer their neighbors a place to sit and read and relax. “I look at that as kind of our ministry,” Marie says. “They can walk in the door and they’re going to be loved.”
The Marshes share the space with daughters Grace, 12, and KatieAnn, 22, both of whom are invested in their parents’ outreach to the community. KatieAnn “is the one that goes all in when there’s an outreach that I’m a part of,” Marie says, “like helping with Grace or making, decorating, and packaging 600 cupcakes for our church’s Easter outreach. She has a giving heart that doesn’t stop.”
Sixth grader Grace also plays a key role in building relationships. She was the Marshes first foster child placement, and the couple adopted her when she was three. “To her, there’s no such thing as a stranger,” Marie says of her daughter.
Because the Marshes have fostered several children during her lifetime, Grace is accustomed to people coming and going. “And now when children come into her life, they’re her immediate friends. She welcomes them,” Marie says. “Her role is just to be herself.”
Macon is a small community, and quiet—except on the school bus Marie drives, she jokes. When the Marshes moved to Illinois, she homeschooled Grace. Once she enrolled in public school last fall, Marie got her bus license and a job as a route driver. The job has given her an opportunity to meet families in town.
It’s Marie’s own history as a child in need of a home that motivates her and her family to reach out to others with similar needs.
“I looked at it as people opening up their home for me,” she says of her years as a foster kid, “so opening up my home to someone else is a way for me to give back to God.” Her voice breaks when she acknowledges, “You can’t repay, except to do unto others as it was done unto you in that sense.”
The Marshes are taking the long view of renovating their new home and future community gathering place. They envision family movie nights, craft sessions, and maybe a place for a church to hold a worship service again. For now, their mission is to be open to the possibilities.
“We invest in people’s lives,” Marie says. “And how we do that is just by opening up our lives and our doors to them.”