East Lakeview might be the last place you'd look for a Baptist missionary church, but on Aldine Street, just a few blocks west of Halsted, there's a 40-person congregation called C3. The Chicagoland Community Church, as it's known, is part of the Southern Baptist, or Great Commission, network of churches.
Pastor Jon Pennington is a loquacious man who moved to Chicago 12 years ago to start the church.
C3 is "not a church that is open and affirming," he says. But "we are a church that is open."
He means that while his church views homosexuality as a sin, every Sunday after its 4 pm service, the congregation offers a hot meal to anyone who wants to join. The dinner is part of the church's "Safe Haven" program, which caters primarily to young LGBT people.
"Hate the sin. Love the sinner," Pennington says. "We mean it and try to live it."
And so, on Sunday afternoons when the bars and restaurants on North Halsted are packed, a group of young people often waits outside the modest-looking church for worship services to wrap.
"We honestly and completely and totally love people who are in the LGBT community," Pennington says. "And we say that without flinching. I loathe the fact that some Christians try to use this book [the Bible] as a justification to scream hate and to come by with horrible signs that the scriptures don't even say. That absolutely nauseates me. Though there's a problem with the other extreme. When people just put a rainbow on the church, they're ignoring a good portion of the scriptures. And once you start bringing your scissors to the text, that's never gonna stop."
Neighbors have chided Pennington for attracting "that element," meaning young people, to their part of the neighborhood. But he insists on not only hosting the weekly meal, but also making sure young people feel at home there. Guests at C3 are welcome to sleep if they're tiredsomething that's often banned at other service centers. And the church opens its closets too, giving away jeans, hooded sweatshirts, socks and underwear.
Dee Heldenbrand cooks Sunday meals. She prepares for 50 people but says the church usually only gets 25-30. Some weeks she'll make chicken and rice. Others it's macaroni and cheese or spaghetti and meatballs.
"They eat until they're full," she says.
Church member Colby Mowery, 21, runs the "Safe Haven" program. He says it's a time when young people can get off the street, grab a bite to eat, share in some conversation or sit alone if that's what they need. The church has instruments that it lets young people use. (The opening video in this series includes an original piano composition played by a young person during one of the weekly dinners.)
"We are not anti-gay. We are pro-Jesus," Mowery says. "Our purpose is not that we are against anyone."
Mowery says a few people have sought his counsel when thinking through their sexuality. When they do this, Mowery says the most important thing he can do is be a good listener. And when people ask for guidance, Mowery points toward passages in the bible that he believes indicate homosexual behavior is a sin.
But, he says, many of the youth have lives that are complicated, and their sexuality is often tied up in family and support systems. Many mention some kind of rupture with their families.
"A lot of people put on masks and say, 'I hate my parents,'" Mowery says, "but really when you get through that, they say: I wish that I knew what my brother does every day. I wish I could go to his football games.
"They've grown up very fast. They've been exposed to everything drugs, sex, alcohol very quickly and with no one to explain it to them. No one ever had any types of birds and bees conversation with them. No one ever told them what alcohol was. They learn these things on their own. And so, because of that, they became adults really fast. And because of that you've got them exposed to a lot of things without a lot of education.
"And I think that, mixed with a lot of hurt from their parents rejecting them, causes a different culture to happen. And they are their own culture."
Mowery says many of the young LGBT people he sees often choose new names for themselves.
"That's one thing where they can take back the reigns of their destiny," he says. They think, "'I don't care what other people think about me.' And that's why sometimes other people in the neighborhoods get frustrated, because the street kids are acting crazy in a place where its not okay to be crazy. There's less of a sense of: It's okay to drink in a bar but it's not okay to drink in a church. There's not that same compartmentalization."
Mowery says a lot of the young people he encounters are disillusioned by how they are received in Boystown and feel isolated. "What they need is for someone to say: You do matter. I see you, and I'm willing to listen to you. And you are important."
That's a role C3 is happy to fill.
Generation Halsted is an eight-week series that seeks to capture youth voices not typically represented in Windy City Times and other media. The young people portrayed have many housing situations, gender identities and sexual orientations. The series looks primarily, but not exclusively, at Boystown, where an influx of young LGBTQ people has been a source of controversy. Windy City Times will continue to explore the issues raised here beyond this series.
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