Praying for West Humboldt Park – One Neighbor at a Time
Today is the National Day of Prayer! In celebration, we’re sharing about a unique prayer ministry The Salvation Army offers on Chicago’s West Side.
Once a month on Sunday afternoon you will see an odd procession moving slowly through West Humboldt Park, the neighborhood at the heart of Chicago’s opioid epidemic. A handful of people – “a Caucasian lady with several black guys,” as one group member described it – starts out from The Salvation Army’s Freedom Center on foot, covering a several-block radius, offering two things to each person they encounter: chocolate chip cookies and prayer.
The “Caucasian lady” is Major Nancy Powers, corps officer at the Freedom Center and director of the Salvation Army Chicago Harbor Light Program, an inpatient substance use treatment program. She calls these monthly prayer walks her calling, inspired by God and by the huge needs in the neighborhood – from the five gangs whose territories meet right in their two-block range to the 80 percent of adult males in West Humboldt Park who have felony prison records to the rampant drug abuse their neighborhood is known for.
“I usually ask the people we meet, ‘Can I pray with you that God would give you an option besides drugs? Because I believe He has a better plan for you,’” Major Nancy explained. Sometimes she and her group have even waited for a drug deal to conclude before approaching people. “One guy just fell on my shoulder when I offered to pray for him,” she remembered. “’Please,’ he responded, the drugs from the sale still in his pocket.”
Major Nancy and the soldiers from her Salvation Army congregation usually pray with 30 to 50 people each Sunday they go out, asking God to grant safety and wisdom for these neighbors in need, and that He would direct them to another path. Her group also tells those they meet about the rehabilitation services available at The Freedom Center if they are willing to come in off the streets. “I have more drug dealers with my card in their pocket than I care to think about,” Major Nancy said with a smile. What she does like to think about are the people who go back to the Freedom Center with them, finally taking important steps to turn their life around, like the two young women they recently got into detox.
Anthony Strong, a 53-year-old addiction counselor from Chicago’s North Side, is a regular on the prayer walks, describing the ministry as “near and dear to me.” He can relate to many of the people they meet. He’s been a substance user, he’s been homeless, and he’s dealt with mental health issues, all things they encounter in the people they meet. He also runs into people he knew in recovery at Harbor Light and other facilities, some who have relapsed.
“Most people ask us to pray for them or for a family member,” he said. And if the person doesn’t take them up on their offer of prayer, they usually ask him or her to pray for them – for their safety as they make their way through the neighborhood.
Strong says he believes God protects them, but they still do their best to avoid dangerous situations. One Sunday they came across a guy on a bicycle, who turned down their offer of prayer. But then a car pulled up nearby and a guy with a baseball bat got out, claiming the bicycler had ripped him off. “The original guy got off his bike and ran toward us, asking us to pray,” Strong recalled. “Thank goodness the guy in the car drove away.” Even with their occasional brushes with danger, Strong is not afraid. “As long as I’m somewhere doing God’s bidding, I’m protected.”
In addition to that faith, he also has great admiration for Major Nancy’s courage. “She doesn’t pick the easier, softer path. She’s on the hardest corners. She doesn’t back down,” Strong said. “She’s the most courageous lady I know.”
Major Nancy likes to joke that she’s fully armed on their prayer walks – with chocolate chip cookies. The treats – cooked right in the Freedom Center kitchen – often open the door to conversation with the people they meet. “Fresh baked goods mean so much to someone on the street,” she said. And they serve as a tangible message right off the bat that their group is there to give, to serve, to help – just like the full array of services and ministries at the Freedom Center.
“God has called us to do our work here,” Major Nancy said. “And when He calls us, I believe He protects us.” She says she hopes she and her husband, Major Merrill Powers, spend the rest of their lives ministering to and praying with the residents of West Humboldt Park.
“I see miracles of God every day in the way He changes people from being users to being used by Him to reach others,” she said. “It is easy to write off the people on the street corners who use and sell illegal substances. But Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost. He can do exceedingly more than I can ask or think – I have witnessed it!”
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