“…People can live without food for 10 days, and they can probably live without water for 6 days and maybe without oxygen for 5-6 minutes. But, they cannot live without hope – not for one day.” – Pastor Choco
At the top of this year, Pastor Wilfredo De Jesus, better known as Pastor Choco, and his ministry began what many view as an unusual approach to combating violence in Chicago. The West side ministry vowed to leave its doors open to the community and surrounding areas for 21 days as a place of refuge and hope. Here’s JET’s conversation with Pastor Choco about what he hopes to be a life-altering solution to combating gun violence.
JET: For those who may not be familiar with you, tell us about your church. How long has your ministry been in existence?
Pastor Choco: The ministry has been around for 50 years. My father-in-law was pastoring for 35 of those years. He retired in 2000. After that, my wife and I became pastors of the church. So it’s been 15 years that we have been pastoring the church! When we first took over, there were about 68 people, or under 100 in the year 2000. Now, with starter churches and campuses combined there are over 17,000 attendees.
JET: We noticed that you were listed in TIME magazine as one of their “100 Most Influential People In The World!” Were you surprised to be listed there?
Pastor Choco: Yes! We were taken by it! And obviously, we’re honored by God for the exposure. With the exposure that is given to us, I fully understand that there are 7 billion people on the planet and I know that God is probably saying, “Choco, this is how I see you. This is not what you may be right now, but if you stay on my path, this is how I see your influence, which would be worldwide.” Like the story of Gideon.
JET: Your ministry really exemplified that mission with “Safety In The Sanctuary!” Many people were calling this an unusual solution to the violence in Chicago. What inspired you to take this approach?
Pastor Choco: Well, the Bible says that when there’s evil, you must do good. And in Chicago there are a lot of killings. There was a lot of protesting and people wanted me to become engaged with the protesting, but I didn’t feel like that was the only solution. Protesting brings awareness, but we wanted to engage the problem from a different perspective. For us, that was to offer for 21 days, a sense of peace and hope directly within the communities where the killings are happening. […].The church has to be able to offer hope to those who are disenfranchised and marginalized.
JET: What were some of the biggest challenges with the “Safety In The Sanctuary” project?
Pastor Choco: Well, some of the challenges that we saw was that the city is really in dire need. We saw families and 2-year-olds and 5-year-olds who are homeless and maybe not in school. So now that we’ve taken on people, we have to advocate for them. As you know, this was a faith-based initiative. It was not run by the city. This was more from the church, so being able to financially support it was a challenge! We’re grateful for our church members, friends and community leaders who supported us. Restaurants also helped us a lot! We had dinner everyday at 6pm. We would have 50-60 homeless people with children there. One of the things we wanted to create was the environment of family where everyday at 6pm, we eat. This is what should happen in your home. There’s no TV, everyone was just sitting in front of each other talking. So it was much more than just taking them off of the streets and having them sleep in the sanctuary. We also had workshops on finances, on police partnership, parenting classes, family movie nights and more! So we were offering more than just shelter to those who were coming and being our guests for 21 days.
JET: As part of the initiative, you also reached out to gang members in the community as well! What was your plan with them?
Pastor Choco: With the violence happening in the city, we wanted to let them know that they could come inside and talk to some of our pastors, ministers and others who could be a listening ear. Maybe they want to talk to some people and process their thoughts before they make a stupid decision. They can talk to some people who may have had that experience and can share with them their experience of being incarcerated and having served their time in prison. They can share with them their story and let the kids know that they don’t want to go that route!
JET: Do you have any stories or testimonies that stand out the most from these 21 days?
Pastor Choco: Absolutely! A great story is that five families were able to be placed that were homeless! Their children are now in school, they have uniforms and supplies, and they walked away feeling valued! We also sent nine men to detox as well! Right now, they’re in a detox center in Chicago. We sent two kids to our teen center and one woman to our farm that we have three hours from Chicago. Some may not know, but in 2002, we purchased a farm to help women addicted to drugs, prostitution or caught up in human trafficking. There are women out there now who are finding themselves. So, the woman we recently sent will live there for a good year focusing on how to get her life in order and on how to get her mind clear about her next steps in life. They have Bible study, computer classes, and times of devotion. We even have a chicken coup there where women can help with the chickens. People can learn more about our farm program at www.ChicagoDreamCenter.org.
JET: Wow! You really have amazing stories & testimonies that have come as a result of this project.
Pastor Choco: Yes, we’re excited about the results! We were able to place people and children into places that they did not have otherwise as a result of our 21 days of “Safety In The Sanctuary.” Another great thing was that although people were not mandated to come to church, you would still see people on Sunday in the service worshiping the Lord! They could’ve walked out for a cigarette and came back after service, but they stuck around and felt like this was a safe, family-friendly environment.
JET: Has anyone requested for this initiative to happen more often throughout the year?
Pastor Choco: Yes! They’ve asked to have it on a yearly basis! We’re leaning in to doing this again, but it’s not something we could do every month throughout the year. It takes a lot of resources.
JET: How can others help with this initiative in the future? What do you need?
Pastor Choco: Well, we would need volunteers willing to come out and serve in 4-hour shifts, and people who would be willing to donate time to cook for 30-50 people. Also supplies like toothpaste, hygiene products, etc. We even purchased suitcases for some of the homeless who didn’t have any cases. Things like that would help for next year!
You can learn more about Pastor Choco and New Life Church at www.mynewlife.org!