Brisk, cool air dissipated our sleepiness all too commonly plaguing drivers of long distances. We couldn’t help ourselves but mumble a few expressions of admiration of our surroundings. As we were trying to decide where the best parking spot would be, we were pleasantly distracted by beautifully, harmonious voices of a choir camp of sorts. I was trying to find a soul who would point us to our initial meeting place named after a guy whose name I was evidently struggling to pronounce. “Can you point us to Chapin?”, I asked one of the staffers riding a golf cart. The only point of reference in my brain at the moment as to the pronunciation was to a Polish composer Chopin—but I somehow new it was a long shot.
Chapin was already bustling with friendly conversations. We struggled to find familiar places, but we somehow knew it would be a weekend of new friendships more than catching up with old friends. We headed toward the registration table. Nan and Heather greeted us with a smile that made us feel more at home.
We were off to a good start of our Chicago Metro Mission family retreat at Conference Point Center in Williams Bay in Southern Wisconsin, right on crystal clear Lake Geneva. Its shore path allows for a 21-mile walk literally through the back yards of striking century-old mansions and even the campus of George Williams College of Aurora University.
The retreat’s agenda was nicely leisurely, but we used virtually every opportunity to let the Lord lead us to people He wanted us to meet and talk to. And He did. We were truly amazed He allowed us to have so many meaningful conversations with so many people (most of them just met) in such short period of time.
The retreat itself ended in a smaller group of the Chicago Metro Mission team with a kick-off meeting regarding a new Leadership Development training, which would extend over the following 18 months. Roger Matthews—the director of Chicago Metro Mission—opened with an invitation to share Bible passages illustrating promises we individually received from God. This time proved to be both very refreshing and emotional. The rest of the meeting was spent on discussing personality types and results of personality tests we were to take as a prerequisite.
The weekend was nearing the end, but the excitement wasn’t nearly over. We were given a proposal no mortal’s will is able to refuse—a genuine deep-dish Chicago pizza. (And I’ve just proven to myself that there is such a thing as a kinetically induced production of saliva caused just by typing the word p-i-z-z-a.) The next two days we spent in Chicago itself.
After a restful night, Jay, who leads the 20’s Mission in Chicago, met us in the lobby of a hotel we were staying in. We decided to find a coffee shop and talk. As we sipped coffee in a not-so-crowded café in Wheaton (to me known mostly for its College), we told our life stories. Heather and I felt the connection with Jay almost instantly, which was very comforting as Jay and his wife Linda are probably the most likely choices for our trainers.
We decided to take a short stroll and pray. God’s presence was evident in my spirit. His peace was on us. Jay treated us to an authentic Thai lunch and we talked some more.
Soon after lunch we met Roger at the office. Armed with a Chicago Transit Authority schedule, we all set out for a train ride downtown-bound, where we experienced first-hand a multitude of teachers protesting on the streets, wearing stand-out-in-the-crowd red t-shirts. The train ride itself was very educational—in a few minutes Roger explained to us, using a pen and a notepad, how not to get lost in Chicago.
The next part of our Chicago education took place in Uptown. We met Larry and Nan at a church. Larry uses this place as his office where he often meets guys for discipleship. Heather was still walking slowly after her surgery and this allowed us to enjoy the “tour” even more and ask more questions. I walked with Larry and Heather walked with Nan. It was our first experience of walking past gang “soldiers”, killing at the moment nothing more than time on street corners. I could not ask for a more educational insider-point-of-view-like walk-around. Larry is a real deal. He doesn’t just live there. He doesn’t just serve there. He comes from this environment of gang life, abuse and pathology. But now He has Jesus. And Jesus shines His light through Larry.
At one point I turned around to see how the ladies were doing and I saw a beautiful scene—they were praying for a woman—right then and there. Larry was just telling me about some of his experiences when he ministered to male prostitutes a few years back in the building we were just passing.
“You see this street over there? It’s an invisible boundary dividing two rival gangs’ territories. You can’t cross the line or you’re in big trouble. It’s like being in prison before you’re in prison.” This thought came over me like a sobering, dark cloud.
Next day for lunch we met with James—one of the leaders of the multi-cultural ministry. I wasn’t very hungry, but flipping through the menu I suddenly noticed a brand name that will get you excited only if you meet the following two criteria: you are a coffee-junkie and this coffee brand is not available in your state. “Can I have a cup of Intelligentsia coffee, please?” The server and I exchanged an insider type of a smile. I knew that he knew I was going to experience something extraordinary. But that’s a story for another post…
After lunch James took us to meet Heather in a different part of town—a territory of latino gangs. She showed us around the building she works at and started telling us how they make a difference in this community. Then we went for a drive in the hood and Heather kept describing the life in latino gangs, giving us occasional chills up the spine. For a moment I felt like we were in a different world. Actually, we were. We stopped by a pleasant-looking ice-cream place where everybody spoke only Spanish and the only accepted form of payment was cash.
We said “good-bye” and set our GPS to “home”. As we were trying to get through a typical Chicago-style rush hour, we struggled to sort out and process through the previous five days. All of a sudden, our move to Chicago became more real than ever.