By seven o'clock most weekday nights, Cassi Wilson's Logan Square apartment is filled with inner-city teenagers looking for a little faith. Drug abusers, gang members, kids with arrest records--all are welcome. Wilson, a youth pastor, has no eligibility requirements. They make dinner, eat, tell a few jokes, study the Bible, and pray.
The gatherings are part of a youth outreach effort organized by the Lincoln Park Community Church, a fledgling north-side church affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene. Wilson and her associates are modern-day urban missionaries. With state services being cut, crime on the rise, and public schools closing, what Wilson does is one of the few ways left to reach inner-city kids. Unfortunately, Wilson says, the need is great, and what she and her colleagues can provide is little.
"Don't glorify us; don't glorify what we do," says Wilson. "It's dirty work; we're filling the gaps on a social level that parents and peers don't fill. We don't get tremendous satisfaction out of doing so much of this alone. We need help."
Lincoln Park Church was formed in 1987 by Dave Clark, a 34-year-old minister from Kankakee. Clark moved his wife and two children to Chicago at the direction of church leaders.
"In the last few decades a lot of churches followed their members to the suburbs," says Clark. "In the 80s we felt we should reverse that trend. We started a program called 'Thrust to the Cities.' Chicago was among the cities we picked."
The decision to choose Lincoln Park was made randomly by Nazarene church leaders, who are based in Kankakee and didn't know much about Chicago. If they had, they might not have selected one of the city's most prosperous communities. "I believe the church should settle where the need is strongest," says Clark. "There's a lot of need in Lincoln Park, but I now know there are needier communities."
For the most part Clark operates out of the Willow Street condominium the church bought for him. In 1989 he started renting space from a church at Seminary and Diversey. He holds services there on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. It's still a small church--with an active membership of only 25--but on some days Wilson preaches to as many as 50 listeners.
"We're not big, but we're diverse," says Clark. The membership runs the gamut from wealthy professionals to the unemployed. The church doesn't advertise--membership is built by word of mouth--and there are no dues.
"On Wednesday we have a more traditional service for believers," says Clark. "Sunday is for people who are investigating what Christianity is all about. My last sermon was on decision making."
In the fall of 1989 Clark started doing youth work at the Mulligan School, at 1855 N. Sheffield, which his kids were attending.
Mulligan is a typical public grade school: old and forgotten (it's slated to be closed by the end of the 1991-'92 school year). Few neighborhood children go there (most Lincoln Parkers send their kids to private or magnet schools). Most of the student body (55 percent black, 45 percent Hispanic) is bused in from overcrowded schools in other neighborhoods.
"I visited Mulligan and saw that the kids weren't getting any music," says Clark. "I said, 'Hey, I'll teach sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders a general music class.' That led to putting together a choir. And then we decided to have a musical. About 200 people showed up; it dealt with themes like peer pressure and self-esteem."
Eventually, Clark was elected to the local school council and started coaching the school's basketball team. "It's so sad; at least half of the junior-high-aged kids in this city don't have any kind of regular athletic training," says Clark. "You have some phenomenal players, but they don't have the fundamentals. You got a kid who can do a reverse lay-up with fancy spin, but he doesn't know where to line up for a free throw."
This year Clark is transferring his kids to a nearby magnet school, where he feels they will get a better education. But he remains involved at Mulligan.
Wilson started working as a "youth pastor" for Clark at the beginning of the 1990-'91 school year. The church pays her $750 a month (she spends about half of that on rent), and one of the ways she carries out her duty is to volunteer her services at Mulligan.
"I do crisis intervention work, I do whatever they want," says Wilson. "It's like being a social worker. One time last year this kid came to school and said they had found a body in his backyard. The dead person was a friend who was killed in a gang-related shooting. What could I do? I went home with him. We talked about death. We talked about feelings of grief."
Since the beginning Wilson has visited her students at their homes and met their families. That means regular trips to Cabrini-Green and rougher sections of the near west side.
"At first I got some stares," says Wilson. "I mean, I kind of stand out, with my blond hair and all. There are only three reasons a white woman goes into Cabrini: she's either with a church, with a school, or living with a brother. I used to get comments like, 'What's your white ass doing here?' Now I only get kidded. If a guy hassles me, someone will say, 'No, no, she's a pastor, you better move on.'
"Overall, I've had my share of troubles, but you learn to adapt. Once I was driving through the west side and a man leaned into my car and said, 'Where you going?' I said, 'Home.' He said, 'I'm going with you.' I said, 'If you don't move, I'll run over your ass.' And I ran over his foot. I had to--he was all set to climb into my car."
Last year she started conducting Bible-study sessions three times a week in her apartment. "We talk, we pray, we try to find what the Bible says that might help them in their lives," says Wilson. "How does the Bible help you when a guy wants you to join his gang? How does it help you when you're fighting with your parents?"
About 20 kids (most of them former or current Mulligan students) are regulars at the sessions. If they can't get there on their own, Wilson picks them up in her roommate's car.
"They trust me," says Wilson. "I'm not a threat. I don't betray their trust. There's not many people in this world they can trust. Only once did they ever do something disrespectful; they wrote gang symbols on my couch. I told them that I have rules, and they mostly obey them. It's not easy. These are not kids who grew up with religion in their house. This is new to them. But they choose to come. Last year a bunch of the guys came over to help string my Christmas tree with popcorn. They were gang members."
Wilson readily acknowledges that her apartment provides only temporary shelter. "I have this one kid, a wonderful guy, a 15-year-old Puerto Rican kid from the northwest side. He found God, but when he goes home he gets no support from his family. He tells them, 'I'm about God,' and they say, 'Oh, you're just a Bible boy.' He says there's so much that he wants to do--he wants to be a lawyer--but the pressure to join the gangs is great.
"There's not a lot I can do for him. I can't get him out of that environment. I tell them, 'You have to change from the inside out.' But just because you accept God doesn't mean that when you go home your parents will have jobs or you'll have an answer to those guys who want you to join their gangs."
Sometimes Wilson and Clark struggle to answer the questions asked of them. "The hardest question is, 'If God is good, how can he allow so much evil to exist?'" says Clark. "We get that question a lot and I usually say, 'Bad is a perversion of ultimate good. If we had the ultimate utopia life would be boring. A higher being can't disallow the horror and still allow the ultimate that can come from choosing the good.'"
For the most part, however, they have more practical concerns to address--like raising enough money to buy a van and keep Wilson employed for the rest of the year.
"I'd like to see a massive movement," says Clark. "We need help. There should be more of us, and I don't necessarily mean more church people. The government should be more involved. I don't want people to think that people like me and Cassi are enough. The task won't be finished if it's just a few of us working out here on our own."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charels Eshelman.