“There is … work to be carried forward, the work in the large cities,” says Ellen G. White. “There should be companies of earnest laborers working in the cities.”
Every day, more than 17 million residents go about their daily lives in the four largest cities in the Lake Union: Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. They represent exactly half the population of Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin.
“Often I hear Seventh-day Adventists want to get out of the crowded cities,” said Victor Thomas, senior pastor of Detroit Northwest Seventh-day Adventist Church. “But as a church, we need to be in a position to help the cities when a crisis comes. There’s much important work to be done right now.”
From extreme poverty to chronic lifestyle diseases and preventable health conditions, addressing the concerns of people living in large cities requires a near-endless amount of resources. And God is calling our attention to these multitudes who need the message but have never encountered it.
Lake Union Conference pastors and church members aren’t running from the cities. Instead, they demonstrate efforts to mingle with people, meet their needs, and invite them to follow Christ and join the church.
Providing health care as a way of serving and making connections is a common theme for pastors and congregations in major cities.
Last spring, more than 4,000 people flocked to Pathway to Health, a humanitarian arm of the North American Division. This free mega-clinic was held at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, and addressed various needs, including dental, legal, vision, medical and lifestyle care.
Patrons who attended learned about their health conditions and received free checkups and examinations. Pathway volunteers then provided booklets about the Health Information Centers (HIC) throughout the city, where attendees could pick up the lab results from their checkups and examinations. The HICs were part of the long-term strategy to remain connected with Pathway attendees — and it was a success.
“Simply put, we just wanted to see these people again,” explains Tunde Ojewole, pastor of the Emmanuel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Indianapolis. “The HICs create opportunities for more one-on-one time and allow us to address their needs and share the gospel.”
One of these HICs was Ojewole’s church, where Johnson Odunuga came to collect his lab results. Odunuga, his wife Damilola, and his two sisters all attended Pathway. After interacting with Ojewole at Emmanuel, Odunuga was inspired and moved by the selfless work of the church to provide resources for people in the city.
“Mr. Odunuga couldn’t believe that there were Christians in the world who would go to such lengths to help others,” explained Ojewole. “It’s amazing — Mr. Odunuga hasn’t missed a Sabbath worship with us at Emmanuel since that weekend. I’m also excited to celebrate that we baptized him and his wife into the Adventist church family.”
Odunuga has been enthusiastic about his newfound faith and has brought several people to Sabbath worship services, many of whom are currently studying to prepare for baptism. One of Odunuga’s sisters, Alice Kujore, and her children attend Brownsburg Seventh-day Adventist Church in Indianapolis and are studying for baptism.
While Pathway to Health has occurred in other cities, this was the first time the hosting city actively supported the large-scale effort.
“God blessed us with a church member who was a city council member who advocated for us,” says Ojewole. “The mayor was moved by what he heard and helped get folks and venues together for us. It was a win-win situation for God’s kingdom and Indianapolis.”
By making a splash with Pathway to Health, Ojewole and hundreds of other organizers helped create name recognition for the Seventh-day Adventist Church within the city.
Ojewole explained the inseparable link between service and sharing the gospel.
“Everything we do to serve these people in our cities is an attempt to demonstrate Christ’s love and create natural opportunities to share the good news,” says Ojewole. “We must address the very real concerns plaguing our community if we want the chance to minister to them spiritually. Pathway to Health was a profound, large-scale example of this.”
Like Ojewole, Evelio Miranda, pastor and Hispanic Ministries Coordinator in Milwaukee, believes that although evangelism is critical in the cities, you must approach it in ways that appeal to the community.
“You can’t just give flyers and hope people in your community will stop what they’re doing and attend your event,” explains Miranda. “You need to gain their trust and establish your reputation before offering Bible study.”
Miranda and his team have used creative outreach methods to bring non-Adventist community members into the fold.
For the last ten years, Miranda and his wife, Noemi, have planned an annual Women’s Ministry Banquet with a unique twist — church members who attend need to bring at least one to three non-Adventist guests. This past year’s event hosted nearly 200 women and church members from the surrounding areas.
The banquet shared spiritual messages and offered health-focused presentations like “Be Elegant and Simple,” “Temperament Test,” “Rejuvenate with Green Juices,” and “Learn to Germinate.”
“Here’s the magic of our events. We can collect names, addresses and phone numbers of the non-members who attend,” explains Miranda. “Afterward, we have dozens, sometimes hundreds, of names that I or other local pastors and church members can use to reach out to people who’ve attended one of our community events.”
Local health fairs have also been popular with Miranda and his church network. They offer free health services like blood glucose testing, depression testing, blood pressure checks, and lung capacity checks. Almost 100 people visited the most recent health fair last September.
“Our health fairs are excellent. They are one of the best evangelistic efforts in our toolkit to reach non-members.”
Miranda also focuses on organizing events that can reach children and youth. Annually, a group of churches in Milwaukee arranges an all-day sporting event, with 150 to 175 people from the community attending each year. The event opens with a devotional message and prayer, followed by football, soccer, volleyball and basketball games throughout the day.
More frequently, the church hosts an event for the youth on the first Sabbath of each month. Children listen to a spiritual message, sing songs and pray during the event's first two hours. Throughout the last three hours they share a meal, play sports, and hang out in the gym of one of the area’s Adventist schools.
“We’ve found that they are much more likely to attend church events now because they know so many other children and youth at other local churches and from the community,” says Miranda. “We can also connect with their parents and forge deeper relationships that allow us to spread the gospel and grow our church body.”
The Vanguard Hispanic Seventh-day Adventist Church serves a community that needs low-cost housing essentials, health education and medical missionary work. That’s why they started the Adelante Community Health Center.
Primarily made up of church members, the health center provides low-cost household items, classes on health principles, cooking lessons, and psychological and spiritual support from volunteer pastors.
“We can promote exercise all day and teach all the healthy lifestyle skills we want,” says Manuel Alva, a medical doctor at the health center. “But without teaching and providing insight into the experience of Jesus while living and serving like Him, we will not make meaningful change.”
Inspired by his history of medical problems and psychological needs, Alva embarked on his own journey to learn about the benefits of nutrition, exercise, water, sunlight and faith in God. Now Alva is a health educator and attending physician at the health center, and addresses both physical and spiritual ailments.
Beyond one-on-one care, Alva and his team host health education classes, with 35-40 people attending each week. He also serves three to five families daily, four days a week.
“The cities are where the people are,” says Alva. “And with more people comes more problems and suffering. If any of my patients express a spiritual need, we arrange a meeting with one of our volunteer pastors. The health, happiness and profound gratitude are unmatched once we’ve fully cared for a patient.”
Located just 23 minutes from Vanguard Church, Epic Church in Chicago also focuses on how it can meet the needs of the people in their surrounding community to bring people to Christ through Centers of Influence.
While some churches are in communities with serious financial and health crises, Epic Church primarily serves people suffering from stress and mental health challenges. For Pastor Andres Flores and his congregation, art and community service are crucial to their city mission work.
“If we were in a region that was more financially- or health-deprived, we’d focus our efforts on meeting those needs,” explains Flores.
To serve their population, Epic Church doubles as Epic Art House, a Center of Influence instrumental in creating opportunities for stress relief, relaxation, connection and overall wellness. As an art and cultural center, the Epic Art House offers art classes and is an exhibition space for local artists.
“We’re focused on building and creating relationships with new, non-Christian or non-Seventh-day Adventist community members,” says Flores. “The art studio serves as a relational environment — we meet people we would’ve never met otherwise. That gives us a chance to share Christ’s love.”
And that effort has been successful. In late November/early December, Epic Church held an outreach program, and heard from a family that has been attending art events at the Center of Influence. Flores and his team have been working to introduce them to the gospel and share biblical teachings.
“Art brings people in. We know that, and that’s why we do it,” says Flores. “But art is just the vehicle to introduce the gospel to the community. We want to build relationships and trust while providing safe and enriching cultural experiences. The trusting relationship will then provide chances to further demonstrate Jesus’ love and care. Our ultimate goal is always to win more souls throughout our city for His kingdom.”
Hyde Park, a culturally diverse neighborhood of Chicago, is home to the University of Chicago campus and former President Barack Obama. But like most cities, Hyde Park has both poverty and affluence.
Eric Bell Jr. and his congregation have continued to deepen their work in the city in his first several months as the newest pastor at Hyde Park Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“We’re situated in a community with both ends of the spectrum,” says Bell. “In Hyde Park, you can find a junk yard on one block, and the next block over can have some of the country’s richest people.”
Bell and his church community have ideated and executed initiatives like a community health fair with free haircuts, food and household supplies. At one community event, children approached church members and shared that they needed help getting school supplies. In response, Bell and his congregation were able to provide several backpacks filled with supplies ahead of the school year.
“Not every need requires a big event,” says Bell. “When kids approached us for help, we just met the need directly.”
Bell has noticed a common misconception about city ministry. “I hear from people who erroneously believe that major cities also have major resources,” explains Bell. “From my vantage point we see, for example, that city resources for the homeless are very scarce.”
To help address the need, the Hyde Park church provides free hot meals and groceries on Wednesdays. When temperatures in the windy city dip and winter storms approach, Bell believes the church has a role in helping the homeless population learn about and get to the safe warming shelters throughout the city rather than attempting a night out in the cold.
“Ministry in the cities is being conscious of the reality that there is tremendous need surrounding you. You need to navigate that. Unfortunately, not every need can be met by our institution. But we still must do all the work we can. It makes a difference. Stagnation is not an option.”
For Bell, it goes beyond the board meetings. The question is, will we go see our brothers and sisters in jail? Will we check in and provide for the thirsty and hungry?
“In our church, we’re focused on helping the gospel take fuller shape. The book of James tells us clearly that we aren’t to simply tell a hungry man to have faith. We need to actually execute. That’s our focus for 2023.”
As the American city with the second highest rates of hypertension, Detroit, Michigan, offers local churches an opportunity to spread the Seventh-day Adventist health message and save lives.
Like most cities, the greatest needs in Detroit center around poverty, food scarcity, and poor water and air quality. But the Lake Union church members and their pastors are working tirelessly to meet these needs.
“It’s clear we need strategies to meet the very real health needs of those who live near and around our church community,” said Victor Thomas, senior pastor of Detroit Northwest Seventh-day Adventist Church. “First, we need to meet the basic physical and health needs of the people living here in our city. Then, and only then, can we transition to addressing their spiritual needs.”
For Thomas, mission work in the cities also centers around educating not only the local community but church members as well.
“A lot of church people don’t know how the church is organized or even how to get involved,” explained Thomas. “A big part of participating in mission within this city is showing our members how to tap into their own skills to better serve the communities they are part of.”
In recent months, Thomas has been working with his team and partnering with Chef Miguel Larcher to establish a Center of Influence in the Detroit area. Together, they plan to organize food trucks and health food stores to provide education and healthy food options for Detroit residents living in a food desert.
Larcher, a trained vegetarian chef, specializes in cooking healthy and delicious nutrient-dense foods. Both he and Thomas believe that by providing healthier options and offering cooking lessons for community members, they can help address the health crisis and point people to Jesus.
“The pandemic slowed down our planning and execution,” said Thomas. “But our church is determined to lead folks to Christ through a public health ministry that improves the lives we encounter before ever asking them to attend our church services.”
Daniel McGrath, senior pastor at Metropolitan Seventh-day Adventist Church in Detroit, has also partnered with Chef Larcher to serve his community.
“We’ve done some health-focused cooking events,” says McGrath. “One of the greatest needs for the demographics around us is education around health. It’s important to demonstrate healthy cooking to people and provide practical skills they can use in their own homes.”
McGrath and his congregation also organize annual Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets for families in need.
“It’s touching for them. They get to have a nice Christmas. We sponsored 20 families over the holiday. We got three presents for each family member,” says McGrath. “We provided basics like jackets, clothing and supplies. We also prayed with them and made it clear that our church is there if they need anything.”
With much of the world's population concentrated in the largest cities, these communities are fertile ground for sharing God’s love with people who need it most. And as the Lake Union Conference pastors and churches demonstrate, to effectively share God’s love the church must first begin by meeting the needs of those in the communities they serve.
Danni Thaw is a freelance writer.