August 21, 2020

New Adventist Center Seeks to Transform Hearts With the Arts in Chicago

Joel Guerra, for Lake Union Herald, and Adventist Review

Looking to win souls for Christ through art and community service, Epic Church opened an outreach center on Monday, July 27, 2020, in the Wicker Park suburb of Chicago.

At the core of the new center is the Epic Art House, an art and cultural center that offers art classes and exhibition space for local artists.

“We want to bridge the gap between the church, as we know it, and the community,” said Epic Church pastor Andres Flores. “We’re in a terrible time of crisis, and we want to offer a place for people to experience healing, creativity, and community.”

Although the art experiences may bring people in, Flores said, art is merely the vehicle they are using to build a connection with Wicker Park/Bucktown residents. Aside from the art outreach, the center plans to be intentionally active in the community through programs such as food distribution for the less fortunate, health clinics, and educational and wellness classes.

Since opening, the center has hosted the first two of four week-long summer camp sessions. During these initial weeks, the Art House staff has focused on getting to know the newcomers and establishing relationships with them. According to head art instructor and Epic Church member William Jamieson, students ranging from ages 8 to 12 have participated in various types of arts such as painting, drawing, ceramics, printmaking, and fiber arts. Eventually, classes will be available to all ages.

“We wish to reach out to our community, build relationships, create trust and good standing within our community, and provide a variety of healthy, safe alternatives to the harm and distrust that many have experienced in the neighborhood,” Jamieson said. “Our mission ultimately is to win souls for Christ.”

Like Jamieson, Flores emphasized the idea of building relationships. He said that the idea for this type of outreach comes from the New Testament concept of emphasizing relationships that Paul was known to practice. “We want to build a relationship first with the people before we have spiritual conversations, and then finally, we can start the process of discipleship,” Flores said.

The Epic Art House intends to reach additional community members by handing out “art boxes” to pedestrians walking by. Inside each art box, pedestrians will find the instructions, tools, and materials to create art projects at home. Jamieson said they will reconnect with those who took a box by displaying their art on their online art gallery and the physical walls of the Epic Art House. These art boxes are just one of the many ways that Epic Church plans to connect with the community and bring its purpose to life.

A Worldwide Church Initiative

The primary purpose of outreach centers is to reach those who may be reluctant to walk into a church. According to the Seventh-day Adventist Church Urban Center application website, the purpose of the centers is to encourage using “Christ’s method” — building relationships by recognizing a newcomer’s emotional needs and later meeting their spiritual needs. The Adventist Church allocates funds every year to help start such centers around the world. Based on the application information, centers are meant to serve urban areas with less than one Adventist member for every 500 people.

Without a single Seventh-day Adventist church in Wicker Park or the two surrounding neighborhoods of Logan Square and Bucktown, Wicker Park easily met the requirements to host an outreach center. Wicker Park, an upbeat hipster town, is known for its food and nightlife scenes and vibrant art murals scattered around town. Jamieson and Flores both consider it one of the more secular areas in the Chicagoland area. Jamieson gave some insight into one of the challenges they will face serving the Wicker Park area.

“Most [Millennials] that I have met are quite cynical of organized religion in their world view,” Jamieson said. “This can be quite difficult, to minister and share the gospel with young people with these attitudes.”

According to Statistical Atlas, Millennials (those born in the 1980s and 1990s) represent around half of the Wicker Park population. Although ministering to this population may sound difficult, Flores is embracing the challenge.

“These are the people that God is calling us to reach. I think these are the people that, like anyone, need God, but the church is not talking to them,” Flores said. “The church is not establishing a relationship with them.”

Art as Ministry

Although they are currently only hosting classes for kids, as they head into the fall, the center leaders envision expanding to offer classes and workshops for adults, specifically millennials.

Jamieson, who has been teaching art for more than 12 years, said that art is a type of ministry that allows people to quickly create a bond. They work together toward the common goal of creating “something beautiful and meaningful together” while self-expressing through their creative journey.

“It immediately sends a message to others that we are here to help. We can discuss fears, trials, suffering, history, joys, and future goals while making art,” Jamieson said.

He said he believes that the creative process of making art is crucial for instructors and participants to build a relationship where they engage in emotional renewal and discuss and understand compassionate values that help them to truly understand a person.

The Epic Art House opening comes two years after the opening of Epic Church’s suburb campus, The Art Space. Located as a storefront inside Yorktown Mall in Lombard, Illinois, The Art Space also uses relationships and art ministry to engage community members. In contrast to the Art House, The Art Space is open only on Saturdays and offers free art experiences to kids and families at the mall. Those who come in are also invited to join the church’s afternoon Sabbath worship service.

Ethan Artiga, a praise leader at Epic’s The Art Space, said he and other art space volunteers have had several inspiring experiences, such as the one with a young blind boy named Ahmad.

Ahmad came into The Art Space for the first time in 2019. He immediately fell in love with the clay and paint projects, but what caught Ahmad’s attention, Artiga said, was the live music he overheard being played behind the storefront.

“We were having a band rehearsal. He heard all the music that was going on inside, and he got excited by that, so he came into the church and was just there listening to us play,” Artiga said.

According to Artiga, Ahmad appreciated the connection they built and began faithfully attending every weekend with his family. Soon enough, Ahmad’s family began asking more questions about the church and its beliefs.

“That’s when we started, you know, discipling them through that. But it all started with that first connection we built as they walked into the space for the first time,” Artiga said.

While Epic Church has been ministering for around eight years, this new location is their most permanent one. Epic Art House business manager Christopher Hux said he believes that a regular location open during the week will help the center consistently bring community members through the door, build relationships, and be a place of healing.

“We believe that there has to be change in the Adventist Church to connect with these new generations,” Hux said. “With this different approach, I think it’s just going to be a lot more inviting. It’s going to be easier for them to step in and see what’s going on.”

Additionally, the non-profit center’s services will not be free, which Flores said will help them achieve their three-year goal of becoming completely self-sustaining. According to Flores, the new center will not open the Epic Art House on Saturdays (Sabbaths). Still, it will hold Saturday (Sabbath) worship services and participate in other activities such as outreach, free art events, exhibitions, and other community-oriented events.

The Art Space is the second center of its kind in the Chicago area. The first was established with the Vanguard Church and Manuel Alva in 2017.

Illinois Conference president Ron Aguilera said he’s pleased with these initiatives. “I believe the church must create relational environments where families gather and relationships are established,” Aguilera said. “I am convinced these environments will lead to the opportunities for those of us who pursue life with God to interface with people from the community and develop relationships that will lead to conversations and invitations to know the Jesus we know.”

The original version of this story was posted by the Lake Union Herald.