For 25 years, Pastor Cal Thompson of Fargo First Assembly of God has been taking high schoolers into the heart of the inner city of Chicago.
Posted on 8/1/15
By Melissa Anderson
For the past few years, Pastor Garrett and Amy Freier have gone with him taking students from Ignite Youth Church Group.
Each year, those that spend the 10 days in the south side of Chicago come away from the trip changed as their focus shifts from themselves and their lives to a world that is consumed with violence, poverty, desperation and, yet, overwhelming excitement and joy when their neighborhoods are filled with hundreds of teenagers from North Dakota. This trip is truly not about the teenagers from North Dakota but the kids of the South Side, yet,both groups have equally life-changing moments during the 10 days.
To sugarcoat the situation of the South Side is an injustice for both those that live there and the students from North Dakota who love it there. It is dangerous as gang activity is prevalent. It is poor and there is a sense of desperation. Yet, ask any one of the teenagers or adults that go on the trip, and they will unequivocally tell you that not once did they feel anything but love, generosity, community and protection while on this trip, simply because they are taking care of the south side’s most important commodity, their children.
It is the kids of the south side that keep those that go coming back. It is those same kids that, after 25 years, have grown into adults who continue to come back to the night rallies bringing their families and friends in hopes that those who come with will have their life changed like they have.
This year, Pastor Garrett took eight girls along with Amy and their five year old son York. Of the eight girls, three: Skylee Hoffarth, Emily Messner and Kia Hiller-were new to the trip with the other five: Hope Bodnar, Courtnie Cook, Amanda Winnegge, Amanda Thompson and Brenna Dease, going before. Like every year, this is a fast-paced, day-packed, and at times exhausting trip. But it is one that most will do again. Each week-day was filled with Praise and Worship/Group Devotional time, Work Projects, Vacation Bible School (VBS) and Evening Rallies.
The mornings started after breakfast with an hour or more of praise and worship and someone sharing a message. This was a time that Cook enjoyed the most, as it was a chance for her and everyone there to grow closer to God.
The work projects ranged from moving neighborhoods, cleaning up local lots, organizing the donations given to City Life Church to painting and construction. Pastor Garrett lead a team in creating a new foyer for the Church and had help from Thompson and Hoffarth while the other girls spent time organizing, mowing and painting.
Then after lunch it was on to VBS. Just like in years past, the 220 plus students and leaders were divided into seven sites throughout the neighborhood.
“The best part is the VBS. You grow close to a kid and make them laugh and smile which is awesome. All the while you are making yourself feel happy and that feels great,” Hope Bodnar said.
“God put us here for a reason to give those kids love because that’s what they need,” Amanda Winnegge said of the VBS.
Those from Ignite Youth Church along with a few other students went back to the same site that they have been at for the past five years. This is one of the things that Pastor Cal makes sure happens. The same students go back to the same sites so that relationships grow year after year.
The students of North Dakota and Chicago develop bonds during the week that is cultivated during the year with letters, texts and prayers.
“After going to Chicago last year, I’ve been able to keep in touch with a little girl named Raven. I came back to not only reconnect with her but also in the hopes of establishing more life-long relationships as I had done with Raven,”Dease said.
The week is all about relationships with those on the trip, with those in Chicago and, most importantly, with God.
“The best part of Chicago were the amazing relationships I got to create with people. Whether it be meeting strangers, or other youth kids, I got to create relationships that will last the rest of my life,” Thompson said.
The night rallies give the adults in the neighborhoods the chance to encounter God. A night rally takes on a larger than church feel, as a stage, lights and a band are utilized to draw people from the surrounding area. After handing out food to those in attendance, hip-hop is performed by DPB, a Birmingham, AL rap group along with high energy praise and worship.
From there, each night features a special guest speaker that tells the crowd about their life before Christ and the transformational power of Christ in their lives. As the evening ends, a message of salvation is given with students praying for those who are asking to be prayed over.
“It amazes me what the presence of God does for everyone but especially the lives of those who are on the verge of giving up,” Dease said.
While the adults are spending their evening on one side of the stage, the kids are on the other, where a high energy rally is taking place with games, music, puppets and lots of movements and prizes, candy, pillows, pillowcases and blankets. The same theme is there though with a message of salvation being presented. Pastor Garrett and Amy’s son York enjoyed this time as he was able to meet other little kids while going to church that was just for kids.
With a focus on relationships, it was important to make sure the needs of those in the neighborhood were met as best as possible. Food was always served at each evening rally, and for some this was their only meal of the day. Pillows and blankets were given out to kids with one kid exclaiming after he was given a pillow and pillowcase that it was his first pillow he had ever gotten. But probably the most fun thing to hand out was brand new shoes.
Hoffarth, who had never gone on the trip before, decided that she wanted to do something more than just go. She raised over a $1,000 to buy shoes for kids. Before she went, she purchased some of the shoes, but realizing it would be a larger task and take up a lot of room, Hoffarth decided to buy shoes while in Chicago.
On Friday, Hoffarth, Thompson, Amy and two other leaders went to the local Payless. There they were able to purchase numerous shoes. The hundred plus shoes were taken back to the church where they were prayed over, asking God to give wisdom to the students to hand out the right shoes to the right kid, and then grouped for each team to take out to their site that day.
As the students went out, it started to rain but that did not delay each team from giving out shoes. One team was able to give out their shoes with one boy asking them to wait a little bit so that he could go home. He went home in the pouring rain only to return a few minutes later with his five brothers and sisters. They all got shoes which was the first time they had all gotten brand new shoes.
Another team was giving out shoes when a little girl asked if she could get a pair. The leader looked at her feet and saw that she was wearing two mismatched, ill-fitting left shoes. After asking, the little girl said it was the only shoes she had. A kid who showed up each day at one of the sites wearing snow boots was given a pair of correct fitting tennis shoes.
“I am moved to tears when I think of the generosity of not just Skylee, but of all our students that went on this trip. They all sacrificed the comforts of home along with a week of their summer to love, to care for, and to show the people of Chicago what a relationship with Christ can look like,” Pastor Garrett said.
As the week came to an end, the students spent Saturday downtown shopping, visiting different tourist attractions, enjoying their freetime with each other and relaxing. The evening was spent as a group at Navy Pier watching the fireworks and then as a group they traveled back to the church where they spent their last night. As they woke up on Sunday, exhausted but exhilarated, they made the 14 plus hour journey home. As they drove into Fargo and then into the Langdon, the landscape was the same, but they were not. Chicago had once again changed them.
“This is my second year going to Chicago. At first I thought I would just be telling people about my faith and leading people to God. When I was in Chicago, I ended up finding myself. Chicago has made me a completely different person,” Thompson wrote.
“This trip has changed me in many ways. I learned to not take things for granted. I learned the littlest of actions can go a long ways. Chicago really pushes you out of your comfort zones and we need that once in awhile,” Bodnar said.
As for next year, Pastor Cal is already planning for the 26th year and the students of Ignite Youth Group plan to be there.
“I plan on going back every year that I can. This is not just a trip, it’s a journey of faith and friendship. I wouldn’t trade my Chicago experience for anything else in the world,” Thompson said.