As a child in Poland, Tytus Gudzowski listened to his father preach many times as an elder and dreamed of one day being able to do the same.
“After every sermon I would go to the pulpit and check to see if I was tall enough to preach,” Gudzowski says with a grin. “It was all about being tall enough.”
Though Gudzowski chose other studies in college, God didn’t give up on him, and after blocking Gudzowski’s path a few times to lead him down another, God led him to earn his pastoral credentials in 2012. For 10 years Gudzowski served in the Polish Union before he received a call from Ron Aguilera, president of the Illinois Conference in the United States. The Polish church in Chicago needed a pastor.
“God has called us to go and make disciples of all nations, and that includes this community,” Aguilera says. “We decided to fund a full-time position to minister to the Polish church, and Pastor Tytus was a clear choice to lead this effort.”
In November 2021, Gudzowski took on pastoral leadership of the Polish church in Chicago, the only Polish Adventist church in the Americas.
It’s difficult to know exactly how many Poles live in the greater Chicago area, but most estimates place the number around 1 million. It is by far the largest Polish population outside of Poland. And although that number includes those of Polish descent, whose grandparents or great-grandparents came from Poland in the early twentieth century, there is a significant number of older immigrants whose primary language is Polish — the third most-spoken language in Chicago — and it is this group the Polish church seeks to serve.
“Poles are predominantly Roman Catholic,” Arkadiusz (Arek) Bojko, pastor and Planned Giving and Trust Services consultant with the Illinois Conference, says. Bojko came with his family from Poland to serve the Polish church in 2006. “[For Poles], though, it’s not so much about the religion for most of them; it’s simply part of their national identity,” he explains.
As the number of Polish immigrants in Chicago grew, the Illinois Conference saw an opportunity. Because there were so many Polish businesses across the city, it was possible (and fairly common) for Poles to operate day-to-day without speaking English. If the conference wanted to reach the Polish community, they had to provide a Polish church. After several successful evangelism campaigns, enough interest had been generated to do just that. A church was established in 1986.
Throughout the years membership has fluctuated to reflect immigration patterns, and currently about 60 members are on the books.
“We are a small community, but very mission-oriented,” Bojko says. “It is important to us to proclaim God, and our church has several different outreach programs every year. We are here to be a light for the Polish-speaking people.”
This is a challenge, however, for three primary reasons. First, as most Poles equate Roman Catholicism with their national identity, talking about any other religion identifies you as an outsider, and it is assumed you are part of a sect. Second, the Polish community is not sequestered into one identifiable area; it is spread across the whole of Chicagoland. And third, the church is shrinking.
“Immigrant churches are at most two-generational,” Bojko points out. “Usually, the third generation is completely integrated into the local community. So the fate of the Polish church depends on the influx of immigration and how successful we are in reaching the Polish-speaking community in Chicago. If we depend only on natural growth, we will die.”
Regardless of the size of the church, the value of what it provides has not diminished.
“For many people who come, the church is their only family,” Gudzowski says. “It’s the only support group they have, and we have always operated with that in mind. People in difficult life situations can count on the community of the church. As long as the need remains, so will we.”