Looking to win souls for Christ through art and community service, Epic Church opened an Urban Center of Influence (UCI) on Monday, July 27 in the Wicker Park suburb of Chicago. At the core of the new center, is the Epic Art House, which is an art and cultural center which offers art classes, as well as 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 be what will bring people in, Flores says that art is merely the vehicle they are using to build a connection with camp goers and Wicker Park/Bucktown residents. Aside from the art, the center plans to be intentionally active in the community through programs such as a 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 and is currently finishing its third week. 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 8-12 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, to build relationships, create trust and good standing within our community, 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 says 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 Art House intends to reach additional community members by handing out ‘‘art boxes” to pedestrians walking by. Inside of each art box, pedestrians can find the instructions, tools and materials to create their own art project at home. Jamieson says that they will reconnect with those who took a box by displaying their art on both their online art gallery and the physical walls at the Epic Art House. These art boxes are just one of the many ways that Epic Church plans on connecting with the community and bringing their purpose to life.
WORLDWIDE CHURCH INITIATIVE
The main purpose of a UCI is to reach those who may be reluctant to walk into a church on their own. According to the Seventh-day Adventist Church Urban Center application website, the purpose of Urban Centers of Influence is to encourage using “Christ’s method”—building relationships by recognizing a newcomer's emotional needs, in hopes of later meeting their spiritual needs. The world church allocates about one million dollars annually to help start dozens of UCI’s around the world. Based on the application information, UCI’s are meant to service urban areas where there is less than one Adventist 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 a UCI. Wicker Park, an upbeat hipster town, is known for its food and nightlife scenes as well as vibrant art murals scattered around town. However, Jamieson and Epic Church Pastor Andres 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,” said Jamieson. “This can be quite difficult to minister and share the gospel with young people with these attitudes.”
According to Statistical Atlas, Millennials alone 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 envisions expanding to offer classes and workshops for adults, specifically Millennials.
Jamieson, who has been teaching art for over 12 years, says that art is a type of ministry that allows people to quickly create a bond as they work together towards 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 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 truly understand a person.
The 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, IL, The Art Space also uses relationships and art ministry as their way 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.
Ethan Artiga, a praise leader at Epic’s Art Space, says that 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 about a year ago and immediately fell in love with the clay and paint projects but what Artiga says caught Ahmad’s attention is the live music that 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 really 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 their 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 yet. Epic Art House Business Manager Christopher Hux believes that a regular location that is 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,” said Hux. “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 take a step in and see what’s going on.”
Additionally, the services provided by the non-profit center will not be free, which Flores says will help them achieve their three-year goal of becoming completely self-sustainable. According to Flores, the Urban Center of Influence will not open the Epic Art House on Sabbaths but will hold Sabbath worship services as well as participate in other activities such as outreach, free art events, exhibitions, and other community-oriented events.
The Art Space marks the second Center for Urban Influence in the Chicago area. The first was established with the Vanguard Church and Dr. Manuel Alva in 2017. Illinois Conference President Ron Aguilera said he’s pleased with these initiatives because "I believe it is imperative for the Church to create relational environments where families gather and relationships are established. 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."
Joel Guerra is a PR and Business Administration major at Southern Adventist University. The young adult from Chicago enjoys social media and local journalism.