Wheaton in Chicago

For more than a decade, Sunshine has been formulating a concept designed for college-age students that would offer more in-depth service learning–extending beyond the typical week-long BridgeBuilders experience. This initiative would further cultivate growth in understanding issues of race, poverty, and justice as students learn and live in the neighborhood for the semester.  Like many younger adults, these students are working through forming an identity as Christians within the context of a changing world.  In 2016, this concept began to take shape as Sunshine began a series of discussions with Wheaton College to bring their Urban Studies program to the Woodlawn community.  

Wheaton had already been running a program called Wheaton in Chicago, a year-long study program during which students live, study, serve, and earn credits while living in the Uptown neighborhood. Bringing the program to Woodlawn offers a unique element for students to “reckon with Chicago’s fractured history”, as Director Noah Toly explains. 

“The biblical framework for a program like Wheaton in Chicago is valuing the commandment as believers to both justice and joining.  The Word of God places incredible emphasis on justice and care for the poor… at the same time, we are not always the ones that can show up and dispense justice.  We need to grow more in our understanding by joining our neighborhood partners and learning and serving alongside them,” says Toly. 

This process of joining is can be messy. Chicago is just one of many cities where tensions between residents of struggling communities too often bump against larger economic forces that exert drastic, sweeping changes. Low-income residents are typically the most vulnerable recipients rather than empowered agents in this process. But just like other urban settings, Chicago’s rich cultural diversity also comes with the potential for healthier and more sustainable change. Toly advocates that this change needs to be led by the next generation as they contend with the problems in both urban and suburban environments. He notes, “communities like Wheaton carry “trauma, grief, and necessity” the same as Chicago’s communities, but in those cases, these problems are more often brought to the forefront in more “inescapable” ways. 

Sunshine’s Executive Director, Joel Hamernick, explains that through this process of building relationships is tough, the overall goals are worth striving for. “The experience of learning from the community within the context of living and serving in the community can truly be transformative,” Hamernick says. “As a new generation of [church leadership] emerges we can not underestimate the value of investing in their learning process.”

Noah Toly agrees, citing how Wheaton in Chicago is foundational for equipping younger Christians. He explains that the ultimate goal is for students to “articulate a Christian theological understanding of human diversity–” one that takes into account the patterns of injustice and inequity among marginalized groups in the United States. All this while helping students form well-reasoned, critical thinking around the issues these groups encounter.

As for establishing healthy relationships in the community, Hamernick offers the importance of cultivating both humility and perspective. “We truly believe that there are many gifts within our community that put the Glory of God on display that are not present in other communities.  These lessons and experiences give a fuller picture of who God is and how He is working.”