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Fire, neighborhood transform Chicago church

3/28/2000 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

NOTE: Photographs are available with this story.

By United Methodist News Service

Five years after a fire destroyed its building, a United Methodist church in southwest Chicago is attracting a brand-new congregation to its rebuilt facility.

The transition from Peace United Methodist Church to a mission site called Centro La Paz para Ministerios Hispanos recognizes the gradual change in the Gage Park neighborhood's ethnic composition from Polish and Eastern European to Mexican immigrants.

For Philip and Diana Wingeier-Rayo, who helped oversee the church's transition, the new congregation is a good example of how the church can reach "over the racial barriers and try to see opportunities for mission instead of just closing up our doors and moving out to the suburbs."

Founded in 1893 by railroad workers and their families, Peace originally was called Edison Methodist Church. The building that burned on April 1, 1995, was the church's third home. Although covered by insurance, the rebuilding was an exhausting project. The new church was dedicated in February 1997.

When the Wingeier-Rayos came to the neighborhood in 1997, they found a small, mostly elderly congregation that was proud of its achievement but looking for a sense of direction. Mrs. Wingeier-Rayo was appointed to the church as a local pastor and Mr. Wingeier-Rayo assisted her as he studied for a doctorate at Chicago Theological Seminary.

"The congregation had been through a very difficult rebuilding process, and basically there were just a handful of people," he explained. "They were hurting, and they were struggling financially."

The church began reaching out to the community by identifying its needs. It opened an after-school program in December 1997 to provide a place for children to go after school and receive homework help, and it started English as a Second Language classes the following month.

But Mr. Wingeier-Rayo noted that church members weren't as involved in the outreach efforts as they could have been. "They came on Sundays for worship, but Mondays through Saturdays, they weren't around," he said.

When the English-speaking congregation resisted the addition of a bilingual service, the Wingeier-Rayos drew upon their missionary experience in Cuba and opened their home for "house worship."

Eventually, the Rev. Donald Guest, superintendent for the Chicago Southern District in the denomination's Northern Illinois Annual (regional) Conference, appointed a study commission to decide how to best use the Peace church site. According to Mr. Wingeier-Rayo, the study led to the transition of the church to a conference-sponsored mission site in July 1999.

During a moving transitional worship service, members of the old congregation turned over mementos of the fire - a recovered Bible, a cross bent by the heat of the flames - to the new arrivals, showing "they were now the future of the congregation."

Besides offering worship services, Bible studies and prayer time in Spanish, the new mission also used a 1999 grant from the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race to provide computer, citizenship, music and GED classes.

Even non-Protestants have come to appreciate the services available, according to Mr. Wingeier-Rayo. "The church is very well located, right in the center of the neighborhood," he explained. "There aren't too many other community organizations around."

Sunday worship has averaged 45 in attendance, with another 20 at Sunday school and 15 at mid-week Bible study and prayer services. On March 12, the mission officially received 23 members and baptized nine adults.

In July, the Wingeier-Rayos and their three children will leave Chicago to resume service as United Methodist Board of Global Ministries missionaries in Mexico. But Mr. Wingeier-Rayo is optimistic about the mission's future.

"We hope that it continues to grow and impact the community positively."

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