Men driving well-worn work trucks glance around in search of scrap metal as they move among the generations of Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood. They embody the work ethic and the community spirit of one of the Windy City’s most diverse neighborhoods.
Brandon Blessman, his wife, Rachel, and their children often see the scrappers circling their community. These are the kind of neighbors who wave and holler when they see familiar faces.
This family-oriented multicultural community mixes local ethnic businesses like Kabobi restaurant and Dulce de Leche Cafe with public schools and Chicago brick bungalows. The Chicago River gently curves around the north and east sides of Albany Park. Tall buildings are absent here, an architectural nudge toward neighborliness.
“It’s not fast-paced, it’s very family oriented,” Brandon Blessman said. “A lot of people will stop and talk. As simple as it may sound, one of the things that attracted us was seeing multi-generational families with teenagers walking to school.”
Such sights compelled the couple to minister to the city they love. The Blessmans joined Missio Dei Church several years ago and started leading a gospel community in Albany Park. These believers intentionally emphasize what Blessmans calls “incarnational gatherings” as an alternative to more traditional Sunday morning services.
Now, two gospel communities of believers from other Missio Dei congregations have rooted in Albany Park. From there, a core team of church planters formed, paving the way for Missio Dei Albany Park’s first Sunday gathering in February, with Brandon as pastor of the congregation.
A community that gathers people through the gospel
A few years ago, Dimitra Pietrucha visited a Missio Dei congregation with her then-boyfriend, Nicholas Glassburn. Now married, the two started connecting with the Blessmans’ gospel community, especially other young adults.
Pietrucha said she was eager to make friends, but she had experienced church trauma in the past. Moreover, she had a rough upbringing and struggled with addiction when she first met Missio Dei believers. Forming relationships with Christians stimulated nervous feelings.
“I was trying to get my life together and find people who could hold me accountable but also love me and not judge me,” she said.
Now, even after having problems while they were engaged, the couple is grateful for and confident in the love of God among their brothers and sisters in Christ.
“These people are like family,” she said. “I can literally bring anything to their attention and it’s no judgment and all love.”
Blessman said their vibrant neighborhood has a culture distinct from the other 76 neighborhoods of Chicago. But, beyond the warmth, many people still need more than a warm wave.
A community struggles with violence inside and outside churches
People in Albany Park are pained by the world’s brokenness when they hear of shootings like the Buffalo grocery store killings. On the Sunday after those shootings, Missio Dei Albany Park prayed by name for those affected in Buffalo. They also prayed by name for the victims of shootings in Chicago that same weekend.
“We pray pretty often that there would be peace in Chicago as there is in heaven,” he said. “The gospel is very much knitted together with the on-the-ground healing that God is doing in the world.”
Due to doubts or the harm many have experienced in past church experiences, a growing segment of believers are deconstructing their Christian faith. Blessman said these neighbors struggle with excesses of evangelicalism above and beyond the hurt and betrayal they’ve experienced from the church.
In the most challenging moments, a commitment to intimacy and Christ has always guided the church.
“It’s been challenging, but also beautiful,” Blessman added. “We think that Jesus is absolutely relevant and good in the messiness of life.”
Listening and love leading to spiritual opportunities
Missio Dei first met as a community of Jesus in Albany Park neighborhood in November 2018.
Since their earliest days, racial justice, human sexuality, conversations around poverty, the wealth-income gap and the segregation common to Chicago have all been open conversations.
“You probably wouldn’t come to a Missio Dei gathering without hearing about the very real things happening in the world,” Blessman added.
Such an approach generates spiritual opportunity along the way.
For example, the Missio Dei family includes some who identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Even in the midst of much disagreement around this topic, all feel not only welcome but truly included as integral members of the congregation.
“That’s such a tough nut to crack,” Blessman admitted. “We want to be a community where all are welcome at the table.
Sunday gatherings engage worshipers through liturgy, shared moments
Since they started Sunday gatherings, an emphasis on authenticity continued. For example, children are welcomed for who they are — bundles of energy with thoughtful questions that defy programmatic event planning. Nevertheless, the church prays a blessing over them each week during worship, after which the children are dismissed to their classes.
Another habit of Missio Dei is incorporating liturgical elements into their Sunday gatherings. For example, the congregation practices call and response, saying the Lord’s prayer, reciting the Apostles’ Creed and taking the Eucharist.
“The liturgical is really compelling to us,” Blessman added.
Blessman said these Sunday gatherings amplify the life of Christ to enrich gospel communities’ experience together. These aren’t Bible studies, he explains, but moments for the family of Jesus to be who they are. What may seem all a jumble is an adequately contextual expression of the people of God in and for Albany Park.
“If somebody asks how to get plugged in, the answer is pretty simple,” he said. “Come and learn how to be in someone’s living room and share your story and share in their story.”
That’s precisely what Blessman and others see in the Scriptures. He referenced the tax collector Levi responding to Christ’s invitation by throwing a party, so all his friends could meet Jesus. Likewise, Missio Dei is a church that invites people to belong while they learn to believe and live according to Christ’s will.
lf somebody asks how to get plugged in, the answer is pretty simple. Come and learn how to be in someone's living room and share your story and share in their story.
Through the congregation, Pietrucha and her husband are learning to serve Albany Park friends and acquaintances with commitment and compassion. They’ve offered formula to families with young kids and given people a ride when they needed it. But, to them, it’s not just doing something trivial just to volunteer but really making a difference for people near to them.
“This is something for me to give back to the community,” she explained. “With these experiences of helping real people and people who are struggling, I definitely feel God’s presence.”
The scrappers and the struggling find grace and faith
The fruit of the gospel communities ― and the Missio Dei vision itself ― have generated life change through Jesus.
One of the smartest guys Blessman knows, a recovering alcoholic with a Ph.D., chose to be baptized at another Missio Dei congregation and join the Albany Park core team.
Blessman said he’s seen the Spirit of God penetrate the man’s heart and his whole countenance changed. In addition, Blessman recently officiated the man’s wedding, a powerful testimony of trusting Christ through relapse, rehab and redemption.
Another woman in a gospel community has had deep struggles identifying and accepting certain church doctrine. This, Blessman said, was the result of hurtful experiences while growing up in church.
However, she keeps coming even when her beliefs aren’t as clear to her as they might be to others in the group.
“You guys are my faith right now,” she told the community one night. “I don’t know which of these doctrines I can say yes to, but I can show up. Showing up is my faith right now.”
Blessman said he’ll never forget that woman who believed by coming when she couldn’t believe by confessing.
A pivotal experience for Missio Dei Albany Park is regularly having meals together. Like the party of Levi, the tax collector, Blessman said people are gathering with Jesus in ordinary ways and learning to trust him, even when they’re not doing church as they expected. Moreover, he’s seen people share resources to pay rent or buy a car and unite in deep friendships.
“These last two-and-a-half years [of COVID] should at least shake up our imagination for what the church is supposed to be in the world,” he said.
Missio Dei’s core team is discovering what the church can be in Albany Park when they live among their neighbors with an appropriate posture.
Albany Park is a neighborhood for both Muslims and deconstructors. Here, among the young and old, the white and black and Hispanic, some love Dulce de Leche’s fusion of Latin-European coffee culture or Persian and Mediterranean restaurants. At the same time, others watch the world as they study, work and connect with their Chicago neighbors.
“In major cities, like Chicago, the world is here,” he said. “You can see the nations in one place, interacting and living together.”
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.