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Back of the Yards Ministry -- It's Not for the Faint of Heart!

Pastor Jesse Nunez ministers in a portion of Chicago known for gangs, shootings, and murders, but he's seeing God grow His church in the middle of it all!

He ministers in a world that most Americans have little firsthand knowledge of. A person visiting his church, in the right (or make that “wrong”) situation, will literally be placing his or her life at risk. In his neighborhood, where even police are hesitant to go, state and federal gun laws carry little weight. Who’s carrying a weapon? It’s more like, who doesn’t?

“Our church is located in the Back of the Yards neighborhood,” says Jesús "Jesse" Nunez, the lead pastor of New Life Christian Center (AG) in Chicago. Explaining that the area earned its name by being located at the back of the old Chicago stockyards, he adds, “We have a lot of gang activity, a lot of shootings, and a lot of fights in the neighborhood.”

Pastor Doug Banks of Maranatha Chapel in Evergreen Park, a suburb of Chicago, says his church has supported Nunez’s ministry efforts. Banks explains that the gang boundary is relatively close to New Life Christian Center. Youth from outside of the gang — or worse, members of other gangs — need to be fully aware of where they are walking and where that boundary line is or the consequences could be severe.

“To look at our neighborhood, you wouldn’t drive through and see anything all that different,” Nunez says. “But it’s the hidden danger — people are always watching.”

When Nunez began ministering in the Back of the Yards a little over eight years ago, his Hispanic background aided him in establishing connections with the mostly Hispanic neighborhood. However, he quickly realized that the church was made up entirely of families driving in from outside of the neighborhood — not one Back of the Yards person attended.

Banks says Nunez decided to work towards getting people from the neighborhood into the church, and one of the best ministry investments he made was to get a church team entered into the local softball league. “What Jesse discovered was that each team in the league was a different gang,” Banks says. “So here comes these church people, and they’re getting cussed out by the other teams for being in the league.”

But then Nunez had a breakthrough idea. At the end of the season, he invited every team — every gang — and their families to the park for a free barbeque meal — no strings attached. At first, the police wouldn’t go for it — all those gang members in one place at one time? Not a good idea! But Nunez persevered, the police relented, the barbeque was a complete and violence-free success, and Nunez and the church earned the respect and appreciation of gangs and their family members.

Nunez says that his relationship with the neighborhood families and the “hands-off” attitude the gangs have given the church sometimes leads people to believe that he can do something for them. “I know they come expecting me to help them,” he says. “But I tell them that I’m only a vessel — if they really want help, God is the One they need to talk to.”

In addition to connecting to the community through the softball league, another ministry the church provides is a food pantry. The pantry, which serves 120 to 150 people a week through its partnership with a local supermarket, not only puts food on people’s tables, but plants the Word of God in their hearts.

“People come by starting at 6 a.m. to get their ticket for the pantry and return at 10 a.m.,” Nunez says. “At 10 they have a Bible study, learning a little bit more about Jesus every week. Then we distribute the food at 11 or 11:30. We’ve had quite a few people decide to stay in church through this ministry.”

About three years ago, the last family from outside of the neighborhood left the church, with the church running about 20 to 25 people at the time. But now, Nunez says, the church is starting to see neighborhood people drawn to the church. “We’re running 50 to 55 now and every one of them is from the neighborhood,” he says.

Church growth is an encouragement for any pastor, but for Nunez church growth has been doubly difficult.

Banks explains. “Jesse has shipped at least four of his families out of the neighborhood and the church because of the violence,” he says. “For example, one woman had her 13-year-old son shot dead, and then her 16-year-old was shot in the leg, and she also had a 12- and 10-year-old at home. Jesse knew and told the woman that she would bury every one of her children if she didn’t get out. So, working with a real estate agent, he helped relocate her and her family to a nice home outside of the city for little or no cost. But the thing is, the family can never come back even to visit the church as the kids would be quickly targeted by gang members.”

Nunez is quick to explain that the church is considered a “safe” zone by gangs, and anyone in the community would feel comfortable in the church. Banks agrees, saying that the respect the church has earned is evident as it has remained remarkably graffiti free — anonymous callers have even warned Nunez and the church to avoid certain places at certain times. However, once people leave church, their zone of safety no longer exists.

Another connection Nunez has with the neighborhood is he’s a chaplain at Cook County Jail. Frequently he has people from the neighborhood recognize him because he has interacted with them through jail ministry. He’s even initiated a juvenile rehabilitation program where part of their community service includes coming to church for Bible study and interacting with Christian professionals (doctors, professors, etc.) to glimpse what their potential could be.

But to illustrate just how dangerous Back of the Yards can be, Nunez says that juveniles outside of the neighborhood who are in the community service/rehabilitation program no longer come to the church. Instead the juveniles are taken to another location in one vehicle and returned to a pick-up point in another, so they can’t be targeted. Nunez explains the reason is that most of the juveniles in the program are in gangs, and if they’re a member of a rival gang and found in the neighborhood, they would be attacked. “We have had three kids shot — thankfully no one killed, but one is still struggling to make a full recovery,” Nunez says.

Yet despite the gunfire and frequent murders in the neighborhood, Nunez sees God at work. “I can see it in the powerful way He’s been transforming lives,” he says. “Drug addicts, gang members, prostitutes, young kids hooked on drugs — God is bringing them back to their families and into the church. He’s not only bringing them back, He’s healing those broken relationships and restoring those families . . . this is where we know God is God!”

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.