The idea of River City was placed into the hearts of a group of people that authentically searched the Bible in hopes of understanding the roots of the early church. The goal was simply to pursue the true essence of a Jesus-centered faith community: what was the ethos that drove these early communities? What were they passionate about? What shaped their values and convictions? How did these passions and convictions get played out in the early church?
What we discovered was that the revolution that Jesus started 2,000 years ago – contrary to popular belief – was not about controlling people’s behaviors or spreading a religious system. Instead it was a movement of power and passion; a journey of discovering God’s grace and beauty as a community, and then spreading that incredible love to everyone we interacted with.
Although words often lose the power to express their original intent, we knew that we needed a guiding light to express these aforementioned desires. So we asked the question: What words adequately describe the passions of someone that is transformed by the presence of God and seeks to live out of that transformed place? We asked this question first, for we sensed that passion is the key to starting a movement. Behaviors come and go and can be motivated by guilt or pride, but passions – the convictions of your heart – are powerful sources of energy and motivation. We were convinced that it was far more important to have a person’s passions changed by God than even their beliefs, for you can believe many things without being passionate about them, but you cannot be passionate about something without believing it to your core.
That question is what led us to the three phrases that guide our steps at River City: Worship, Reconciliation, and Neighborhood Development. We believed that the central passion of every person transformed by God should be a life of worship; to have the center of our hearts re-programmed in order to give glory to God and to live in constant relationship with Him. We believed that a transformational encounter with God then results in a passion to make a difference in the world, and that passion can be described by the Biblical word reconciliation. Reconciliation simply means living with a passion to make things right; to bring wholeness to issues ranging from individual relationships to structures and systems; from friends and family to race and culture. Finally, we believed in another core passion of God: to seek justice and shalom within the neighborhood and city that God carried us to.
The neighborhood we sensed God “carry us into” (Jeremiah 29.4) was Humboldt Park, a historic beacon for low- to moderate-income residents and immigrants. Humboldt Park is a community of mixed ethnicities, with Puerto Ricans generally populating the east, African-Americans populating the west, and a growing Latino/a immigrant community scattered throughout. Because the neighborhood is just three miles west of downtown, it has also experienced a degree of gentrification on the east and north side. This further diversified the neighborhood with a wave of young professionals and artists. Due to its combination of rich history, cultural breadth, and diverse people we felt a magnetic draw to Humboldt Park.
Humboldt Park is a beautiful mosaic comprised of all of God’s people. The neighborhood has a long and vibrant history. Humboldt Park has always been a haven for immigrant communities, beginning with Italians, Poles and Russian Jews, and more recently with an influx of Mexicans. The population peaked in the 1930s at 80,835 and appeared to be stabilizing at about 66,000 by 2000, with an almost even mix between Latinos (48.0 percent) and African-Americans (47.4 percent).
The actual park is a 207-acre sight of beauty, and was ranked by the Chicago Reader in 2012 as the prettiest park in the city. On a sunny day you will see every facet of human culture there – young and old, wealthy and poor, families and singles. You will see Latino/a Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Euro Americans. The neighborhood is filled with history, charm, and wonderful people.
But Humboldt Park has its share of challenges too. According to the 2000 Census, 25% of the families in our neighborhood lived below the poverty line, with 90% of the students in CPS coming from low-income families (CPS website). The school system in Humboldt Park has struggled to provide a dynamic education for its children here, with only 42.5% of the students in its 16 public grammar schools at or above the national norms in reading comprehension and only 48.9% at or above the national norms in mathematics. The 3 public high schools have only 21.15% at or above the national norms in reading comprehension, 7.33% at or above the national norms in mathematics, and 6.6% at or above the national norms in science.
Humboldt Park has been our home base since the origins of River City, and each era has been filled with many challenges and wonderful memories.
Years 1-2 (2003-2005)
Once we gained clarity that Humboldt Park was the neighborhood God had called us to, we then began to concentrate on the preparation process for launching the church. We spent 6 intensive months recruiting and training a core of people that were passionate about our value system and vision (or at least desired to be passionate about it). We also began to build relationships with other churches, ministries, and organizations in the area to develop a team of partners. Some people came and went during these 6 months, and eventually a core group of about 30 people (which we affectionately called “The Remnant”) bonded around this vision.
During this period we met in various locations before finally renting the River City Headquarters (2124 N. Milwaukee – across the street from the Congress). These were really fun days, because at that point River City was nothing more than an idea in our heads, a moving ideal that we were trying to chase down. But we sensed in our hearts that God had gone before us, and that He had really called us to these passions and this neighborhood.
September 7, 2003 was a big date in River City’s history, for it was the day that we first launched our public worship services. Up until this point River City felt like an underground club: we moved around so much that you had to have a special invitation to be able to find us. But now we were public; we were open to anyone in the neighborhood that wanted to join this adventure.
For the first two years of our church we held worship services in the Congress Theater (2135 N Milwaukee Ave) while simultaneously renting a ministry center across the street (2124 N Milwaukee Ave). We wanted to have a commitment to the neighborhood from Day 1, and worked hard to make that a reality. Alderman Manny Flores and his staff opened their office across the street from ours, so the early days of our church were marked by a variety of collaborative efforts with the 1st Ward leadership. These efforts ranged from community meetings in our ministry center to organizing street cleanings on behalf of the alderman’s office.
As we became more rooted in the community and were able to listen to the desires of our neighbors. The request we received most often was for ESL classes, so this became the major form of community outreach for our church in the early days. We rebuilt our ministry center to become more suitable for classes, and began offering ESL for free. We offered classes 2-4 times per week depending on the season with as many as 4 classes happening simultaneously, and have been doing so since.
Years 2-9 (2005-2012)
Though we maintained the ministry center space, we quickly came to the realization that the Congress Theater was not an optimal facility for offering church services. It was at this point that a friend of the church – Pastor Wilfredo DeJesus of New Life Covenant Assemblies of God – graciously offered to allow us to use their space for Sunday morning worship services. This was exciting for us, not only because it was a great space, but because New Life had never rented their building to another church before. They had built up a 40-year history around the corner of Wabansia and Mozart, and wanted to steward their reputation. Yet they believed in us enough to change that policy. Their confidence in our character and mission was a very affirming moment for us, and we have done a number of collaborative projects together.
As we continued to grow into a deepening sense of our identity and call, our desire grew to seek more clarity around our long-term impact within the community. We had remained faithful to our 3 core pillars of worship, reconciliation, and neighborhood development, but we also realized that there were a number of different ways those values could be lived out. We lacked a cohesive vision to bring them all together in a way that was unifying, compelling, and clear.
One of the primary filters that guided our search for a deeper and more cohesive expression of our vision came from this conviction: it is challenging – in some cases impossible – to raise healthy children in a disintegrated community. Without local institutions that draw families and young people together around common interests and activities — religious, social, and recreational organizations, effective schools, safe and well-used public spaces — even the most heroic child-rearing is likely to fail. Conversely, by gathering and organizing members of the community around activities of common interest — particularly the healthy development of children — even the most devastating conditions can be reversed. It was our desire as a local church to participate in this larger movement of the healthy development of children and families in the neighborhood.
There is a well-known and enduring proverb that “It takes a village to raise a child.” Even though we were already committed to the neighborhood of Humboldt Park, we came to the conclusion that this was still too large of an area to be covered by just one “village.” The proverb does not say, “It takes a city to raise a child.” That would miss the point. A village has a sense of geographic definition. A village paints a picture of an area small enough that the families and children of that area can know each other.
Therefore we made the decision to seek out a long-term space for our church that we could put down long-term roots and become a contributing partner to the “village.” Our ultimate goal was to develop a network of healthy adult relationships that surround the children and youth of our village with a web of support. We wanted to contribute to this web of support by pursuing a reality of support that provides uninterrupted support for children’s healthy growth, starting with pre-natal programs for parents and finishing when young people graduate from college.
A significant aspect to the determination of our long-term location within Humboldt Park was the search for a partner grammar school. There are numerous facets to a holistic, life-giving neighborhood development strategy, but if a neighborhood does not have a local grammar school functioning at an adequate level (at the very minimum) everything else becomes destabilized. So throughout this era we interacted with most of the grammar schools in Humboldt Park, evaluating their ability to educate children and inviting the school to evaluate us for potential partnership.
We eventually established a long-term relationship with Cameron Elementary School. As the most diverse grammar school in the neighborhood, they face many challenges (100% low income students for one). But they have an aggressive academic vision and are determined to improve the futures for the children in our neighborhood. They recognized that there are things we can do as a church that they cannot effectively do, and vice versa. We established a long-term partnership with Cameron, and began to search for a long-term facility within walking distance.
Years 10+ (2013 - present)
A major turning point in the history of our church was the purchase and renovation of a foreclosed warehouse at 3709 W Grand. As a church we were committed to looking for a home within the walking parameters of Cameron Elementary, and were delighted when God opened the door to this amazing facility. The members of River City were sacrificially generous, and were able to execute a $2.5 million dollar capital campaign. The building was designed with a net zero environmental impact (thanks to a grant from Commonwealth Edison), and also doubles as a community center to be used by the neighborhood residents.
One of the theme verses of our capital campaign was Mark 11:17: “And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’?” This is our dream for River City - that the Spirit of God will stir in this place, and transform it into a house of prayer for all of the nations.