River City began…
as a Biblical search for truth-driven, Jesus-centered community of faith. By first looking to the roots of the early church - considering the ethos that drove these early communities, exploring what shaped their values and convictions and how those were lived out - our founding group discovered that following Jesus was not actually about changing individual behaviors or spreading a system of religion, contrary to popular belief.
We were inspired to learn that the revolution Jesus started 2,000 years ago 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. With this as our starting point, we sought to name the passions and aspirations that flow from the presence of God and His transformational love and power, which became the values of River City.
This led us to the three pillars, 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 redirected toward life in constant relationship with Him. We believed that a transformational encounter with God leads to a passion to make a difference in the world, to bring wholeness to that which is broken: from individual relationships to structures and systems; from friends and family to race and culture. That passion can be described by the Biblical word reconciliation. Finally, we believed in another core passion of God: to seek justice and shalom within the neighborhood and city into which we are carried.
The Chicago neighborhood we sensed God “carry us into” (Jeremiah 29.4) was Humboldt Park, a community of mixed ethnicities, with Puerto Ricans generally populating the east, African-Americans populating the west, and a growing Latino/a community scattered throughout. It is also a community experiencing a high degree of gentrification. River City has resided in Humboldt Park since its origins, growing deeper in our connection and love for the community.
Years 1-2 (2003-2005)
After sensing God’s call toward Humboldt Park, we began preparing to launch the church. We spent several months recruiting and training a core of people that were passionate about our vision and values. We also began to build relationships with other churches, ministries, and organizations in the area to develop a team of partners.
We convened in various locations before landing at a rented storefront, which became the River City Headquarters on Milwaukee Ave., across from the Congress Theater. These were really fun days - at that point River City was nothing more than an idea in our heads, a constantly evolving concept we were trying to chase down. But we sensed in our hearts that God had gone before us, and that He had called us to these passions and this neighborhood.
On September 7, 2003, we first launched our public worship service. Prior to this, 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, open to anyone in the neighborhood who wanted to join this adventure.
For the first two years of our church we held worship services in the Congress Theater, across from our ministry headquarters. We wanted to cultivate 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, additional opportunities arose to listen to the desires of our neighbors. The request we received most often was for English language 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 free of charge.
Years 2-9 (2005-2012)
We soon realized 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 and affirming for us, not only because it was a great space, but also because New Life had never entrusted their building to another church for rental before.
As our sense of identity and call deepened, we longed to seek more clarity around our long-term impact within the community. We had remained faithful to our three pillars of worship, reconciliation, and neighborhood development, but 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.
We came to be led by the conviction that 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.
In line with the well-known and enduring proverb - It takes a village to raise a child - we decided to seek out a long-term space for our church, where we could put down roots and become a contributing partner to the “village.” We envisioned a network of healthy adult relationships to surround the children and youth of our village with a web of support. To do this, we felt led to partner with a local grammar school in Humboldt Park, and ultimately established a lasting relationship with Cameron Elementary School, and began to search for a long-term facility within walking distance.
Years 10+ (2013 - now)
A major turning point in the history of our church was the purchase and renovation of a foreclosed warehouse at 3709 W Grand Ave., just a block from Cameron Elementary. The members of River City were sacrificially generous, and were able to secure the funds needed to create a space that further enabled us to live out our three pillars.
Our new building created a foundation for another incredible milestone for our church. In 2015, our non-profit community development organization, R CITY, was launched. As a direct outgrowth from River City’s deep relationship with Cameron Elementary, and rooted in feedback from local families, R CITY’s mission is to build a path for families to walk from cradle to career, for the glory of God. The strongest felt need from local families was to have a safe place for children, that could be a place of peace - this led to the creation of open gym nights, after-school programs, and summer programming. In the months to come, an opportunity arose to bring the Harambee tuckpointing program into R CITY - an innovative career readiness and job training program, where teens are trained in the craft of tuckpointing, providing hands-on work experience and restoration in the neighborhood.
River City’s story continues to unfold, as the Spirit leads. We continue to hold fast to Jesus’ teaching in Mark 11:17: “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 would stir in this place, and continually transform it into a house of prayer for all nations.