When Garrett Freier stepped off the bus in the heart of Chicago's south side, he wasn't sure what to expect. But he knew God had led him to that moment.
Freier, along with dozens of other youth from churches all over North Dakota, had taken the 11-hour ride to spend a week in a troubled, inner-city neighborhood to share the gospel. For several years, he had heard stories about youth pastor Cal D. Thompson and groups from First Assembly in Fargo working each summer in the poorest, most violent neighborhoods in the nation. And 16-year-old Freier knew that his youth group from Bowman Assembly needed to be part of that team. So he took up the cause with his youth pastor, who agreed. And that changed his life in June 1997.
"I'd never had any conversation with an African-American before," Freier says. "I'd never been exposed to poverty. I had no idea people in my own country lived like that."
For one week, group members went through neighborhoods sharing their faith and inviting people to gospel rallies, barbeques, and vacation Bible schools.
"It was a hard trip," Freier admits. "Few showers and sleeping on the floor. I took a mission trip to Spain and we stayed in a nice hotel. This was a lot tougher!" Yet Freier returned the next year, along with even more students.
This year, he returns for his fifth summer as a youth pastor, bringing a group from New Hope Fellowship in Langdon, about three hours northwest of Fargo. The New Hope team will join Thompson and students from both North Dakota and Minnesota on 16 buses and trailers -- 220 participants in all.
This is the 25th anniversary of this Chicago outreach.
In the early 1980s, Cal Thompson was ministering in Wheaton, Illinois, and heard that Teen Challenge founder David Wilkerson was going to be on the south side of Chicago leading rallies. Thompson viewed Wilkerson as a heroic figure and thus volunteered. And that began a passion to introduce communities to the gospel's life-changing power.
When Thompson moved to Fargo in 1990, his passion remained, and he approached church leaders about taking students on a mission trip back to the Windy City. They agreed, and that first year eight students went. Now a quarter century later, more than 2,600 have participated in the annual outreach.
All this week, a group of mostly white, mostly rural teens are descending upon the three-square-mile radius of the Englewood neighborhood to join forces with the Chicago Life Center, operated by AG U.S. missionaries Chris and Monica DeLaurentis. As time permits, the combined forces will minister to as many of the area's nearly 30,000 residents -- 44 percent of whom live below the poverty level -- as possible.
Each morning, group members spend intensive time in prayer and worship before heading out to do various work projects, from rehabbing a house to cleaning up empty lots. Each afternoon participants will break into teams and hold vacation Bible schools in eight different locations. Evenings will be filled with community rallies in which hundreds of people will hear about Jesus.
For the first decade, Thompson set up most of the logistics on his own, but 15 years ago when Chris and Monica DeLaurentis founded Life Center, Thompson approached them about a possible partnership. At first the DeLaurentises felt tentative.
"We loved that they were willing to come," Monica says. "But Chris and I worried about all these white teenagers showing up in a neighborhood that's 98 percent black and so violent that moms won't let their kids play outside." Those concerns soon evaporated.
"We couldn't do our work without them," says Monica, who earlier experienced a tremendous turnaround in her own life. "They bring a spirit of love, empathy, and compassion."
"We've seen this community change, thanks to Pastor Cal and his group," he says. "But it's a slow, committed process."
Thompson doesn't have a problem with commitment. In fact, his passion is so steadfast that one year he went on the trip after suffering from a massive torn aorta a couple months earlier from which he almost died.
"Who does something like this in youth ministry for 25 years?" Freier asks. "Nothing has deterred this guy from going."
Freier says that Thompson's commitment has paid off.
"The businesses look forward to when we're there because Pastor Cal has built a reputation of excellence and caring for the community," Freier says.
Thompson's exuberance and vision is part of the reason teens continue to return, even into their college years. But more so, many return for the relationships they've begun with the people there.
"It's one of the greatest weeks for the kids in the neighborhood when these teens come," Monica DeLaurentis says.
After so many years of doing this ministry, Thompson now sees kids go whose parents went years before. One of those parents is Linda Schlafman, 47, who mentors troubled teens and attends Evangel Assembly in Bismarck. She went with the group in the mid-1990s, when she served as Thompson's ministry assistant. It made such an impact on her that this year her 15-year-old daughter Hadley is going on the trip.
"It was a God-changing moment for me when I went," Schlafman says. "I've been waiting for my daughter to be old enough to go and experience what I experienced."
Thompson treasures the stories of changed lives -- both among the volunteers and within the neighborhood. One year when team members arrived, the street by their accommodations was blocked off because someone had just been murdered. That week, while some of the students were going door-to-door in the projects and talking about Jesus, they knocked on one door and inside 20 people were seated in one room.
One of the group members shared the gospel and several in the room ending up accepting Christ as Savior. It turned out that those gathered in the room were relatives of the murdered young man. Thompson believes it was a divine appointment.
Over and over Thompson says he has seen people radically changed by the power of God. And Thompson knows dozens of kids who went on these trips that are now in ministry.