One of the Bible passages many faith communities read during the season of Lent is the story of God calling Abraham and Sarah to leave everything and go where he would lead them. But God didn’t tell them where they were going or how long they would be on the road.
“That’s our story,” said Rev. Dawayne Choice, regarding the decision he and his wife Saylease made two years ago to leave Marion, Indiana, where he had a secure position in a church, and move to the Chicago area and start a new church from scratch.
“The Lord called us,” said Choice, who grew up on the west side of the city. “The Lord called us and we decided to go. It was very scary. What if we don’t succeed?”
He added: “But soon after we arrived, things just started happening. I couldn’t explain it or understand why they were happening.”
Originally, the couple envisioned planting their new ministry in Oak Park. Rev. Choice’s parents had lived there for 10 years. When he was growing up on the West Side, he had played ball at the local YMCA.
Choice started his new ministry with just his wife, himself and his parents. They began by holding a “Friends and Family Day” at Longfellow Park in Oak Park. They rented out the building, invited everyone they could think of and had a dinner. Then the entrepreneurial pastor shared his vision for the new church for 15 or 20 minutes with those who gathered and asked people to sign up and be part of the adventure.
“The vision was to be in Oak Park,” he said, “but it didn’t work out well.”
They bounced around, holding services at the Open Door Theater, Beye Elementary School and Irving Elementary School. When District 97 decided to raise the rent so high that the fledgling congregation couldn’t pay it, Choice knew they had to move again.
Feeling a bit homeless, the couple noticed that First United Church of Forest Park was looking for another church to rent space in their building, as a way to help pay the bills the dwindling congregation was increasingly unable to pay.
It seemed to be a match made in heaven.
“Right from the start in August of 2017,” said Choice, “the members of First United and their pastor Rev. D. Michael Kucera have been so generous. In order to allow us to keep our worship time at 10 a.m., the same time that they had been meeting, they moved to a smaller room in their basement where they had already been holding services, so they would not be directly under where we were worshiping in the sanctuary.”
Then, half a year later First United, asked Engage Church if they would like to purchase their building.
“I told them that we couldn’t afford it,” Choice said. “I said, ‘We’re just two years old.’ We were doing well with our offerings but not well enough to pay for the building.
“And they replied,” he continued, “that they would make sure we could. They gave us a really good price on the church building and the parsonage next door with no strings attached.”
Choice said he closed on the building in December 2018.
“These are good people, man,” he exclaimed. “We couldn’t be where we are if it weren’t for their generosity. We’re going to be forever grateful for what they’ve done making sure we can get this building.”
The new owners hung a big banner on the north side of the church building, 1000 Elgin Ave. First United Church is given equal billing with Engage Christian Church on the banner.
“As much as it looks like we’ve been good to them, they’ve been good to us,” Choice said. “They left a foundation in this community. We want to carry on whatever impact they’ve had.”
Growth in Engage Church has been steady. As they celebrate their second year as a congregation, they are averaging about 30 attendees every Sunday. Choice said that they are getting at least one new visitor a month.
He is also encouraged by the commitment of people like Roger and Sasha Simmons, who had worked with Choice after he left Indiana for a few years to serve a church in Detroit.
“After he returned to Indiana,” said Roger Simmons, “Pastor Choice never went a week without calling me and checking up on how I was doing. So when Sasha and I heard that he was starting a church in Chicago, we prayed about it, and found that we couldn’t let go of the pull to be part of that ministry, so we quit our jobs in Detroit and moved to Forest Park.”
“When they moved here, it blew my mind,” Choice said, adding: “This is the hand of the Lord. He never said it would be easy if we follow his call, but his hand, his grace as literally been upon us.”