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At Puente del Pueblo, staff and volunteers actively seek out ways to plant and tend seeds of God’s grace and love in the lives of West Chicago residents. Puente’s director, Matthew McNiel, imagines faith development as a metaphor of gardening rather than of hunting. “We take the long view, commit for the long haul,” he says. “We plant seeds in many different avenues and watch to see which come to life.”
A woman named Laura is just one example of this patient soul-tending. When her family moved to the Timber Lake apartments almost four years ago, she noticed flyers advertising summer day camps and enrolled her two school-aged children. That was the beginning of her relationship with Puente del Pueblo.
When the school year began, Laura started ESL classes, and her daughters joined Puente del Niño (after-school tutoring for children) and Puente del Futuro (the after-school program for teens). Through these programs, Laura saw her girls improve at school and learn how to be disciplined, make good decisions, and communicate well with their parents. They developed strong relationships with Puente’s staff and volunteers, and when Laura enrolled them in the Christian education classes, they learned how to study the Bible.
When Laura was asked what other needs she had, she expressed interest in a Bible study for herself. That was how she met Puente’s Timber Lake case manager, Irene Owens, who began meeting with Laura regularly for Bible studies.
Laura had always attended Mass but without understanding what it was all about. “There was something in me longing to learn about God. With Irene, I began to read small passages, but they had such big meaning. Something began to move in me, in my spirit. Sometimes,” Laura recalls, “I felt it so strongly that I began to cry. It was a very different experience for me. Irene was praying with me, and she was giving herself to me in a special way. I began to understand and see something in the Bible and in my life that I had not had the chance to look at before.”
The impact on Laura was clear to Irene. “It has been amazing to be part of this, because God opened her eyes and touched her. She has been very careful with her decision. One day she prayed ‘God, prepare my heart for the day that I receive you.’”
The two women continued to study weekly, and Irene remembers the day she asked Laura, “What will you do with Jesus?” It was a powerful moment for them both.
“Now I understand that God is life, that when you give everything to God, you receive everything,” Laura said. “I received Him here with Irene, received Him with my heart.”
Many Seeds Being Planted
Laura’s interaction with Puente is similar to the experiences of other families, with the first “seeds” planted through Puente’s summer camps and after-school programs.
By investing in children, Puente staff members see entire families touched. Some children learn about God through Puente del Niño or Puente del Futuro and then take the initiative to ask their parents if the family can attend church and learn more. Because of the relationship between Puente and Wheaton Bible Church, Iglesia del Pueblo (WBC’s Spanish-speaking congregation) is often where they first land.
Wil Franco, Iglesia’s youth pastor and Puente del Futuro Christian-education teacher, has worked with a number of the teens from these families. Compared to “church kids,” he says, most “Puente kids” know little about the Bible, about the Gospel, or about Jesus.
“Anytime you teach them from the Bible,” he says, “they are blown away by it, often hearing these things for the first time—wow! They are blown away by the concept of grace and are shocked to see that God’s Word addresses their daily lives.”
Another major opportunity to plant seeds in the community comes during times of crisis. This winter, when a part of the polar vortex moved farther south than usual and brought dangerously low temperatures and wind chills to the area, a regional power outage left many Timber Lake apartments without electricity or heat. During this crisis—as with the 2012 apartment fire that forced 24 families from their homes—Puente partnered with Timber Lake management, reaching out to affected residents with tangible care in the name of Christ.
Irene speaks for all the Puente staff when she talks about how she embraces her work at Puente as an opportunity to glorify God. “As I serve the people, I give the glory to God and not to myself or Puente,” she says. “The community knows that they can count on us, but I tell them that it is God’s love they are seeing. ‘God did not forget you in this crisis.’ ‘God loves you.’ ‘God loves the immigrants.’ ‘God loves the single mother.’ When I offer an assistance check or a space heater to someone, I say, ‘With this help, know that God loves you.’”
Irene is also planting seeds as she has opportunity to teach and lead various classes and groups of women. “I try to communicate to them that God has loved them since they were little girls, and He knows their hearts as adults longing to learn. I intentionally, persistently tell them that God loves them, and that God put in the heart of church members to give money and time to create these programs, and into our hearts to meet and teach and love them.”
Personal relationships, built through time invested in the community, provide still more opportunities for Puente’s seed-planting ministry.
A Patient Process
One family has seen Puente’s steady relationship with them as they struggle with the realities of cancer, disabilities, and hardship. A family member confided that although he does not follow Christ, he has noticed something he can’t ignore: when he was abandoned as a child in Mexico and had nothing to eat, it was Christians who cared for him. Now, as an adult in another country, he and his family find Christians once more visiting, supporting, and loving them through hard times.
Wil Franco has also witnessed the impact of long-term faithfulness. “I’ve noticed over the past years that the journey can be more significant than the decisions.
“We’ve had several kids pray a salvation prayer but then seen no evidence of it in their lives. There are other Puente kids who have taken longer, but when they get it, their lives change.”
He says it can be tempting to aim for what he calls “microwaved Christians,” made immediately with little process or patience. But that is not God’s way.
“He is more patient than we are, interested in long-term change rather than quick decisions” Wil says. “There is a fruit that comes from being present in someone’s life for the long haul. There are many I know who have learned to respect our message even while disagreeing with it, because they have seen that we don’t walk out on them, because we haven’t budged.”
Irene remembers what it was like to be on this journey herself, to have seeds of God’s grace lying dormant in her spirit. “I didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, but people who loved Jesus received me into their homes. I continued walking in the dark, dark night of my life. But years later when I looked back, I saw a very long and dark road with a tiny little light in the midst: the opportunity to be given a home when I did not have a home, to receive love when no one loved me.
“God used Christians,” she says, “to put that little light in the middle of my dark night. Here at Puente, it is possible that in the dark night of many people in these communities, though we cannot see the fruit right now, they may one day turn and see that the light and love of God was present in their lives.”
When these seeds bring life and bear fruit within the community, as with Laura and her family, there is great rejoicing among the faithful laborers at Puente.
“I cannot describe the joy that you feel when God is transforming a heart, a life. There is nothing in the world like that” reflects Irene. “Christians who are not actively testifying to God’s life-changing power are missing something very beautiful. It is this joy that is my reward, the confirmation from the Holy Spirit that I am doing the right thing. Please pray to God for more avenues to plant seeds and reach people with the message of God’s love and grace.”