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Serving the Neighborhood: Spotlight on Lake View Presbyterian Church

 

The monthly Urban Exploration series explores how Chicago congregations respond to their urban context.  Lake View Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest Presbyterian congregations in Chicago, currently served by three McCormick alums.  

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Lake View Presbyterian Church

Take a walk down Broadway in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood, and you’ll see a lot of cafés and restaurants, boutiques and grocery stores, bars and grills. Rising up out of the brick and concrete buildings is a wood-sided church on a small green plot that looks like it belongs in a small town next to the Victorian-era B&B. Although it looks a little mismatched to the bustling and hip neighborhood, Lake View Presbyterian Church is a community stronghold, offering spiritual and material sustenance to it’s neighbors for over 125 years. It exists as a glowing example of what urban ministry looks like in the 21st century.

“This church actually began when this area when it wasn’t part of Chicago,” says Rev. Joy Douglas-Strome, senior pastor (and McCormick alum) of Lake View Presbyterian Church. “When it was a smaller community and you could actually see the lake from here.” A commitment to serve its neighbors has always been a driving force behind Lake View Presbyterian’s mission service work. The church initially functioned as a neighborhood house, in the vein of Jane Addams’s Hull House, offering informal food, education, and counseling services to the surrounding community. As the city grew up around them, church members listened to their new neighbors and sought to meet the needs they articulated. Today, this same spirit of community service and focus continues to drive the church’s numerous ministry projects.

One such project is the Lake View Academy, an alternative high school for Chicago teens who have had trouble in their neighborhood public schools. In 1972, some “at-risk” teenagers, who were doing some work with the church as a summer program, asked the pastor to start a school for them. They felt welcome and safe at Lake View Presbyterian, and dreaded the thought of going back to school in the fall. The pastor took their request to the session, and it was decided that the church did not have the resources for such a program. The teenagers began praying in the sanctuary every day for Lake View Pres. to open a school, and the church stepped out on faith to provide them with one. Today, Lake View Academy has around 15 students enrolled it its diploma program and is part of the Chicago area Alternative Schools network.

“Sharing space is a huge part of urban ministry,” says Rev. Alex Wirth. “When I go out to a suburban church, I am always surprised at how quiet and clean it is,” adds Rev. Megan Cochran. Both are associate pastors at Lake View Pres. and recent McCormick graduates. Lake View Presbyterian church is bustling with activity during the week. In addition to Lake View Academy, the church hosts a variety of community programs. Senior citizens are able to come in for a free lunch and social activities, AA groups meet in the evenings, and the Chicago Gay Men’s chorus uses the space for rehearsals. Allowing outside organizations and groups to use church space not only helps support the church financially (old buildings are not cheap to maintain), but also increases the visibility of the church and affirms its relationship with its neighbors.

 

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“We are always driven by three questions: Who are we? Who is our neighbor? What is God calling us to do?” Rev. Joy Douglas Strome

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“Hopefully we can help [new residents] be the rich people God is calling them to be.” Rev. Alex Wirth
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“We need to strike a [spiritual] balance between feeding and being fed.” Rev. Megan Cochran

Friday nights are always busy for Lake View Pres., that’s when they host Café Pride—an outreach ministry for homeless youth in the neighborhood. Volunteers, both from the neighborhood and the congregation, set up the fellowship hall area as a place for teens to come and hang out—to be kids. “It’s important to make this a safe space, a place where these youth can come and be themselves,” says Alex. For many of the attendees, Café Pride is the one place where they can live into their true identities as LGBT-identified and as teenagers who just want to hang out with their friends. Volunteers serve a hot meal, ensure that the space remains safe, and provide conversation and companionship if approached by the teens. “We have had a lot of volunteers join the church after volunteering with Café Pride,” says Alex. “They volunteer on Friday nights and see that the church is serious about ministry. Then they come on Sundays and experience our worship services—they get the full swing of praxis from Friday to Sunday.” “We never thought of Café Pride as a way to recruit new members,” says Joy. “It’s been very interesting to see how so many volunteers end up joining our community.”

Although Lake View Presbyterian Church has several ministry service projects, they also maintain a focus on the spiritual life of the congregation. “There really has to be a balance between feeding and being fed [spiritually],” says Megan. In order to nurture the spiritual life of the congregation and to strengthen the relationships between members, the church coordinates five retreats a year for various groups within the community. “We also have Spirituality Circles that meet weekly, that’s been a huge success,” says Megan. “We are continuing to grow, but we also want to have community in that growth and sustain that tight-knit feeling.”

As Lake View Presbyterian continues to grow, it also changes with the neighborhood demographics. “The area is in transition [again],” says Joy. “We’re facing a lot of gentrification.” “I’m kind of glad, in one sense,” says Alex. “The richer people that are moving in, buying condos, and visiting the church are also in need of pastoral care. We can help them be the rich people that God is calling them to be—we can be a moral voice in that way.”   Although the makeup of the congregation and the community may change, Lake View Presbyterian will continue to be guided by its mission. “We are always driven by three questions,” says Joy. “Who are we? Who is our neighbor? What is God calling us to do?” These three questions have helped to guide the ministry of the church for decades, and have been essential in grounding the congregation through the challenges and opportunities of its urban environment.