By Bob Smietana
Jerry Klatt stood by the door at Grace Covenant Church, at the corner of Monticello and Berteau avenues on Chicago’s Northwest side, when I arrived there early on an Easter Sunday in April of 1990.
I was bleary-eyed and a bit rumpled that early spring morning, after a late night out. But I’d managed to find a shirt and a tie that matched and made it to church on time.
Jerry’s face lit up as I walked up the stairs that led to sanctuary. She and her husband, Fred, both retired, had been pillars of the church for years, and were always dressed immaculately as they greeted people.
“You even wore a tie,” Jerry said, before giving me a hug.
Those were hard days. My marriage of less than two years was on the rocks and my faith, while not in tatters, was frayed around the edges. The future seemed uncertain. Hope was in short supply.
The late 1980s were hard times for Grace as well. Years of slow decline, with only handful of faithful souls left. Unless something changed, the church would likely be closed within a few years.
When my friend, Stuart McCoy, arrived to fill in as interim pastor, Fred gave him one assignment: “Keep the doors open.”
Stuart, a recent seminary grad, didn’t have a plan to fix what was broken at Grace. But he had a sense that God had called him to the church.
He and his wife, Holly, started inviting some of their friends to church, along with students from nearby North Park University. The church’s older members were thrilled to have some new, young faces in the pews.
“That was a lifeline,” says Stuart. “It helped give people a vision of what the church could be.”
Other changes came slowly. A few songs led with a guitar and piano to supplement the hymns. A slightly less formal worship style. A few tentative steps to reach out to their neighbors, led by a former missionary turned college professor, who had joined the church.
Over the next few years the church grew, filled with young families and well as folks from the neighborhood.
One of the high points of each service was a time of sharing prayer concern, where people talked about their praises and struggles from addiction and infertility to cancer and struggling marriages, and found God’s peace in the midst of their hard times. Many of us, including my wife and I, found hope and healing at Grace.
“In some ways, we lived up to our name,” says Stuart, who served as Grace’s pastor for more than a decade.
As the church became healthy on the inside, the congregation gained the strength to reach out to the world around it.
Grace became a home to future missionaries, who were doing their training at a nearby seminary, and then supported those missionaries once they were on the field. A ministry for refugees—including more than two dozen former “Lost Boys” from Sudan—was started by some social workers in the church.
Some men in the church began running “Fed with Grace,” a weekly food pantry, out of the church basement. Grace even planted a new Spanish-speaking congregation, which shares their building.
Grace will never be a big church. Their building is modest-sized—with seating for about 175 if everybody squeezes in—and land-locked in the middle of a vibrant urban neighborhood. (There’s not even room for a church parking lot.)
But it reminds me of a thriving outpost of God’s kingdom.
Recently Stuart and I looked back on our time at Grace and marveled at what we experienced there. The church wasn’t saved for just one moment in time, Stuart said. Grace also gained a future.
“Revitalization isn’t for this week or for the next five years,” he said. “It’s about what the church can look like 70 years down the road.”
Bob is the former senior writer for Lifeway Research. In September 2018, he joined Religion News Service, where he currently serves as a national writer.