CHICAGO, IL (September 8, 2016) — Covenant missionary Barbara Swanson was thrilled to walk into the building where her faith had been nurtured while she was growing up even though—or especially because—the service was in a language she didn’t understand.
What was once South Chicago Covenant Church has become Iglesia del Pacto Evangélico Peniel, and many of its members are first- or second-generation immigrants from Latin American countries.
The church’s beginnings stretch back to 1884. For more than 50 years, the language of worship was Swedish. In 1937, the congregation voted to worship in English and did so until the church closed in 1997. In 1998, however, the Spanish-speaking Iglesia del Pacto Evangélico Peniel moved into the building.
Recently Barbara and her husband, Steven, were at Covenant Offices for a gathering of missionaries returning on home assignment. They hadn’t planned to visit the church she had grown up attending. But they also hadn’t planned on meeting Edgar Torres in the reception area of Covenant Offices.
Edgar is a North Park University graduate who works with the Department of Communications as well as with the youth at Iglesia del Pacto. After a brief exchange in the lobby, he and Barbara discovered that they had both grown up in the same neighborhood and in fact had both attended the same church.
Edgar came out from behind the desk and enfolded Barbara in a warm embrace. He told her that he had always wanted to meet a member of the “old” church. They set a date for Barbara to visit the “new” church and share her story of being mentored in the church and sent out as a missionary. Barbara also invited several members of the South Chicago congregation to join her at the evening gathering.
When she arrived, Barbara noticed a few things had changed: the choir loft had been filled with a drum box, and the worship team played guitars and keyboards, rather than the organ. And some things remained the same: the beautiful stained-glass windows had been lovingly restored, and the prayer room was still a place of calm and peace. As worship began, she says, “We all had a sense that the Spirit of God was alive and active in this community.”
The language had changed but the vision is still the same! What seemed to be a death…became the birth for a new community of Spanish-speaking Jesus followers.
Barbara added that she was inspired by the congregation’s passion for ministry and how it continued her own story. “People saw the potential in me and developed that potential, just as Pastor Javier Cardenas and the church is doing in this current generation of Christ followers.”
Edgar added, “It is truly a blessing to be part of God’s mission and to continue doing his work in a church that was once established in 1884 by a group of Swedish immigrants.” Barbara’s visit had encouraged the congregation in its ministry in its changing community.
“One of the biggest blessings was to hear our youth talk about how they also wanted to be part of God’s mission by becoming missionaries, youth leaders, pastors, and even camp counselors,” Edgar added.
“Our evening together at Iglesia Peniel was a dream come true, for me, to get back to the place and the ‘things’—the piano and organ—that were important to me,” Barbara said. “But even more important was the people who were and are important in that place.”
In addition to their desire to share the gospel and raise up new generations of followers, the gathering celebrated another common bond.
“Immigration stories were all over the room,” Barbara said. “Mrs. Elma Borozan, who just turned 90, was with us that evening. She had emigrated to the U.S. from her beloved Scotland as a young woman. John Stajcic, former church chairman, trustee, all-around faithful servant in the church, had emigrated from Germany as a young boy. My personal Serbian and Swedish heritage was complemented by the many lands of the Spanish-speaking world that were present that night, many with immigration stories from Mexico. Pastor Javier and his wife are originally from Colombia.”
Steven said, “The language had changed but the vision is still the same! What seemed to be a death in 1997 when the English-speaking congregation ceased public worship became the birth for a new community of Spanish-speaking Jesus followers.”
He added that all who had gathered came to better understand the words of the author of Ecclesiastes 3.
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to tear down and a time to build.”
Those times continue. Barbara and Steven will move to Sweden in 2017 to minister with refugees and immigrants, especially those from Muslim backgrounds. The members of Iglesia del Pacto Evangélico Peniel plan to purchase a neighboring building to open a community center for tutoring, teaching, and caring for the local population.