“Why would you live in Chicago?”
It’s a question Sean and Lydia Stevenson are regularly asked. For those familiar with Chicago, and by extension, Illinois, it’s a reasonable question. Fair or not, Chicago has a reputation. Carl Sandburg wrote about it over a century ago. “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”
The reputation still exists.
Mention Chicago and common perceptions run to high crime, higher taxes and less than honest politicians. For most people, the picture painted isn’t one of the promised land. However, for the Stevensons, church planters in Elmwood Park,
none of these impressions of the Windy City swayed them one bit.
“Why live in Chicago?”
“Why wouldn’t you live in Chicago!” responds Lydia Stevenson when asked. “The whole world is here, and the whole world needs the gospel.”
Elmwood Park, a village bordering Chicago, is more like its goliath neighboring city than the sprawling suburbs to its west. It’s historically a city of immigrants. That hasn’t changed. But as the Stevensons discovered when they arrived in Elmwood Park, where those immigrants are coming from has changed. And that’s not just true for their neighborhood, it’s true of many cities, large and small, across Illinois.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, the wave of people seeking opportunity in Illinois came from across the Atlantic. At first, they came from Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia, then later from Italy, Russia and Eastern Europe. That second wave found a home in Elmwood Park, especially people from Italy and Poland who would shape the identity of the neighborhood for decades.
Fast forward to 2018. Sean and Lydia Stevenson were praying about where God might send them next. The couple had served as International Mission Board missionaries in Poland for eight years, sandwiched between seasons of church planting in Ohio and Montana.
“We had met John Yi and Chris Wright, former Send City missionary here, and had been praying with them about how we could get connected with work in Chicago,” Sean said. Those prayers led to an invitation to move to Elmwood Park to replant a former non-denominational congregation who had reached out to the North American Mission Board and Illinois Baptist State Association for help.
“I can remember where we were in Montana at a taco truck when we got the telephone call. We just looked at each other, and we’re like, ‘We’re moving to Chicago,’” Lydia said. “We knew it. We’ll still pray about it, but the fact is that there were Polish people there whom we dearly love.”
When the Stevensons arrived to replant the newly renamed Elmwood Park Community Church, they fell in love with the faithful 22 remaining members as well as the community. However, what they found was a church at the geographic center of the community, but invisible to the people of the community. They needed to know their neighborhood and the people of Elmwood Park needed to know them.
A change in posture
So, they began to lead the church to change their posture.
“They used to close the parking lot off with barriers through the week, so no one could park there,” Sean said. “Now all the people in leadership in our community, the school, use our parking lot. The Village uses our parking lot a couple of times a year for events.”
“It says a lot that the people in our church who were a part of that from the beginning, the 22 left, put a stake in the ground and said this church is going to be a witness in the community, and we want this. We’re willing to make all these changes we’re willing to do whatever it is to see Elmwood Park come to Christ.”
The open parking lot was the first step. As the parking lot opened to the neighborhood, their hearts opened up to their neighbors. That led to inviting the community to be served by the church. Now they host a food pantry every Saturday morning and a clothing closet two Saturdays each month.
The Stevensons discovered these ministries are a real barometer for the make-up of their community, especially in identifying who is new and what residents are on the margins. And what they discovered is not what they expected. They expected a mix of eastern Europeans with a few Hispanics, but Sean said that 65% are from Latin America. And that was a surprise.
It’s a story that has been slowly unfolding across the state.
New people groups everywhere
By 1980 immigration patterns in Illinois had started to change.
This was the first year since the early 1900s that most foreign-born Illinoisans were not from Poland. Mexico had become the new immigration leader. This Hispanic growth trend has continued steadily statewide. Hispanic ethnicity has grown from 8% of the population in 1990 to 18% in 2020. Ten percent growth over 30 years among the total state population may seem modest, but that now equals 2.3 million Hispanic residents living in Illinois.
In many communities across Illinois, the change has been even more substantial.
Elmwood Park is one of these communities. Since 2000 its Hispanic population has grown from 11% to 34%. This presents communities and churches with a mix of challenges and ministry opportunity.
Many of these are first generation Americans. They come from countries across Latin America, bringing their culture and language with them. They face the difficulties of trying to navigate a new culture and find their identity, while still feeling deeply connected to their heritage.
Jonathan de la O knows this well. He pastors Starting Point Community Church in Chicago, one of about 40 Hispanic congregations in IBSA. “The demand of fitting in — in either Latino or American culture — can be overwhelming and exhausting,” he said. For the past eight years, through his regular preaching and his annual celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15) he has sought to connect those who left Latin America for Chicago to their greater identity, an identity found in Christ.
“We tackle themes such as what it means to be a foreigner in a new land; how God can use a sojourner; where our citizenship truly lies; and how God can use the outcast, the uneducated, the poor, and the marginalized all for his glory,” de la O said.
Navigating beginning stages
In Elmwood Park, Sean and Lydia Stevenson are still navigating the beginning stages of this. They were expecting to conduct ministry in two languages, English and Polish, but now they’re learning a third, as their food pantry flyer in English, Polish, and Spanish bears witness.
Sean grew up in New Mexico and has spent his whole ministry immersed in Catholic influenced cultures, so he’s up to the task. He’s learning Spanish while the church offers Spanish translation of Sunday preaching through headsets. And Lydia is preparing to launch ESL classes soon. They have a list of people who are ready for a Spanish language Bible study.
But the continued growth of the Hispanic population has Sean thinking bigger.
“To have a real thriving Hispanic work, we need a Spanish speaking pastor,” he said. “Being a church replant, we’re not there financially yet. I have this feeling if we started a Hispanic work, it would outpace the English work within a couple of years.”
As they pray for God to provide, they see him faithfully grow the church and reach people in their neighborhood. A church that felt invisible just a few years ago — closed off from its community and the world — is now known as the church that helps people in Elmwood Park. It increasingly reflects the new ethnic diversity of the Village. “Our church looks more like our community,” Sean said. “Our Sunday morning platform has Latinos, Asians, Eastern Europeans, joining me.”
“And the really cool thing about Elmwood Park, going from a Bible Church to now a Southern Baptist Church, is before, they felt like they were on an island.” Lydia said, “Now they’re part of this IBSA and Southern Baptist family. They’re passionate about missions, and they want to go, and they’re on fire.”
And they don’t have to go far, because the whole world is coming to them.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Ben Owens and originally published by the Illinois Baptist, newsjournal of the Illinois Baptist State Association.