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Making a Lasting Impact in Little India
From practical and spiritual support to relationship building, tutoring and ESL, Moody Bible Institute students are serving the needs of Chicago’s vast refugee population—and receiving as much as they are giving.
On a drizzly Thursday evening in Chicago’s Little India, Moody Bible Institute students Aaliyah Feaster, Rachel Wilson, and Clara Vander Hoven climb three flights of stairs bringing boxes of diapers and good cheer to Burmese refugee families in the apartment building. Mohammed and Nur Jahenbi, Rohingya Muslims who settled here after fleeing persecution in Myanmar, thank them for the gifts, compliments of Devon Oasis, and invite the students inside.
“Are the kids here?” asks Vander Hoven, dropping her shoes at the door and sitting down on the carpet with the other Moody students.
Suddenly two Rohingya moms appear in the doorway as six refugee children race past them to join their tutors on the floor. The living room erupts with chatter and laughter. For the next two hours, the Moody students play with the children, help them with homework, and share Bible stories. Despite an hourlong commute to the apartment, the students look forward to their weekly visit with the kids.
“It’s cool to build relationships with families and be able to pour into the kids’ lives,” says Vander Hoven, a freshman majoring in ministry to victims of sexual exploitation. “I love it.”
The visit also serves another purpose, fulfilling a weekly Practical Christian Ministry (PCM) requirement at Moody. PCMs have long been a part of every student’s training at Moody, taking what they’ve learned in the classroom and applying it in the community.
Moody Bible Institute offers 300 options for PCM assignments, ranging from homeless shelters and rescue missions to English-language teaching and kids’ Bible clubs. Several PCM opportunities attract students to Little India, the 15-block strip of Devon Avenue stretching west from Damen Avenue to California Avenue.
The diverse South Asian community and commercial district on Chicago’s North Side has seen a large influx of refugees, predominantly Afghan evacuees but also families and individuals from Iraq, Uganda, Myanmar, and Sudan.
“In 36 years, I’ve met people from over 135 nations—in one neighborhood,” says Dr. Bob Andrews, who earned his master’s degree from Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago in 2004 and founded Devon Oasis with his wife, Lynne, in 1986. “We share Jesus Christ unashamedly, but we address people’s felt needs.” Devon Oasis features more than 50 Moody students each semester serving this community of refugees.
Because five resettlement agencies are located in Rogers Park and Albany Park, many immigrants and refugees end up staying in the area. This densely populated community in Chicago offers great opportunities for Moody students and alumni to be good neighbors.
“God has gathered the world on this one-mile strip,” says Bonnie Hill, a junior majoring in missional leadership and nonprofit management at Moody. Hill serves with Devon Oasis, doing in-home tutoring and forming relationships with refugees for her PCM.
Alyssa Grunden, a 2018 graduate of Moody, supervises the homework center at Devon Oasis, where Moody students tutored refugee kids. Before graduating from Moody, this was Grunden’s PCM for four years. She loved it so much she became a missionary to the community.
The South Asian Friendship Center has been a presence in Little India for 25 years. Started by Dr. Samuel Naaman, an intercultural ministries professor at Moody and president/interim director of SAFC, the organization has trained hundreds of Moody students to support South Asians through women’s Bible studies, English-language classes, homework center tutoring, a monthly bilingual service in Hindu/Urdu and English, and ASHA Outreach, a PCM that seeks to restore women caught in sex trafficking.
On Sundays, Pastor Shine Gidla—a 2019 graduate of MTS—welcomes the church family at Sabka Sahaara. An ethnically diverse group of 50 or so people crowd into the storefront church, including Moody students and alumni who desire to serve the community.
The church collaborates with the South Asian Friendship Center and Devon Oasis to provide space for additional homework centers, SAFC’s monthly bilingual women’s service, and other events throughout the week that often involve Moody students.
Sabka Sahaara also hosts New Neighbor, an opportunity to befriend Afghani refugees. The program is in partnership with Exodus World Service, a nonprofit that works with resettlement agencies to help refugees assimilate to their new culture, language, and geography. Exodus is one of the PCMs at Moody. It invited students in Moody’s Children and Family Ministry program to hold a kids club for Afghan refugee children in a downtown hotel where their families stay until they can obtain more permanent housing.
Moody PCMs stretch farther east to the Family Empowerment Center in Rogers Park, where Moody students taught conversational English to refugees and immigrants on Thursdays. Many of the Moody students teach curriculum from one of their TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) courses. The weekly volunteer efforts of these students brought together people from numerous cultures, countries, and ethnic groups for a common purpose.
When Dr. Bob Andrews wakes up in the morning, he thinks of the Rohingya Muslim refugees who live in adjoining apartment buildings just two blocks away. “I ask myself, Who’s my neighbor? These are the people God’s called me to serve,” he says.
Andrews, a pastor, and his wife, Lynne, have been caring for refugee families in Chicago’s Little India neighborhood since 1986. After earning a master of divinity degree from Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago in 2004, Andrews eventually opened Devon Oasis, a storefront ministry that provides tutoring and other services for the many refugees flooding into the community. Each year he trains dozens of Moody students in intercultural ministry. The need is great.
“Thousands—we’re connected to thousands of people right here, and it’s a mission field,” Andrews says.
Whether you meet refugees at the grocery store, the park, or through your church, you don’t have to be a social worker to help them. Instead, think “good Samaritan,” someone who shows compassion to a hurting stranger and doesn’t pass by on the other side (Luke 10:25–37). How can you get to know the refugees in your community and open the door to sharing the hope and love of Christ?
1. Get involved
Volunteer for ministries that cater to refugees and immigrants, such as teaching English and assisting with homework. The language barrier can be one of the biggest obstacles a refugee faces in making a new life here. By helping a refugee learn English, you’re helping them succeed and find a job. At least 3.7 million refugee children are out of school.
While attending Moody Bible Institute, Sara Scazzaro taught English at the Family Empowerment Center on Devon Avenue for two years. Last year she started tutoring at Devon Oasis in Little India to help kids with homework.
“It’s a natural way to meet practical needs but also to build relationships and enter into their lives,” says Scazzaro, who was invited by a refugee family to celebrate their birthday parties and eat meals together. Her love for refugees has grown. After graduating with her TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) degree in May, she will be moving to Little India to continue serving.
Find a church involved with refugees in the community. Moriah Chambers, who graduates in May, plugged into Devon Oasis and Sabka Sahaara Church in Little India at the recommendation of one of her professors. Through that experience she has become good friends with Surah, a young mom from Afghanistan.
“There’s a language barrier, but over time we’ve had some good, meaningful conversations,” says Chambers, who answered questions after the woman watched the Jesus Film. “God’s opened doors for conversation.”
2. Join in friendship and meeting needs
Bonnie Hill, a junior majoring in Missional Leadership and Nonprofit Management at Moody Bible Institute, lives in Little India with a few other women from Moody. She has found that the number one need of refugees is friendship.
To befriend refugees, she serves with Devon Oasis, doing in-home tutoring and forming relationships with refugees for her Practical Christian Ministry. Bonnie and some Moody friends recently delivered a welcome pack to a new Afghani family in the neighborhood—“dishes, cups, blankets, basic necessities for living in an apartment,’ she says. “They invited us in, and we shared a meal with them, and they were incredibly hospitable and kind, a beautiful family and people.”
We as believers can extend friendship to our arriving refugee neighbors by spending time showing them around the neighborhood. Offer a ride or help them navigate the public transportation system. Accompany them to the grocery store, park, or library. In other words, help make an unfamiliar place familiar.
Start a program at church that encourages members to adopt a refugee family. Then practice hospitality by inviting the family to your home for coffee or a meal, dropping off a gift or baby supplies, or inviting them to join your family for a game night. Offer to help with child care or other needs.
3. Share the love of Christ and pray
Be sensitive to the Spirit as you let His love flow through your actions. Hearts are open and opportunities abound in times of greatest need.
Emily Taylor, a junior at Moody, tutors students at the South Asian Friendship Center in Chicago and visits with their parents on Thursday afternoons. She’s careful not to disrespect their culture, and when visiting a refugee, she has learned to practice “cultural rules,” such as eating what’s in front of you and not watching the clock.
In a recent bilingual Bible study with Hindus, she chose to teach the story of the paralyzed man lowered through the roof and healed by Jesus.
“It’s important to distinguish Jesus from other gods because Hindus will accept Jesus, but they’ll accept Him as one of their gods,” Taylor says. “So they need to see that Jesus is all-powerful.”
Even if you can’t help refugees with your presence or material goods, your prayers on their behalf can move the heart of God. Disha Moreau, a new deaconess at Sabka Sahaara, leads a prayer time for Afghanistan and its refugees every Friday on Zoom.
“This prayer meeting has been a lifeline for me,” she says.
In 1992 Dawn Pulgine was living the American dream. She was married to a successful businessman, parenting three young children she adored, and managing her family’s beautiful home in an affluent neighborhood in Chicago’s western suburbs. If her house had a white picket fence her story would have been befitting of a Norman Rockwell painting.
So when Cindy, Dawn’s best friend from elementary school, invited her to join a weekly women’s Bible study at a nearby church, to say Dawn wasn’t interested would be an understatement.
“I went kicking and screaming the whole way. No way was this Catholic-raised girl going to be influenced by a bunch of ‘Bible-beating crazies,’” Dawn says now with a laugh.
Yet, after repeated prodding (and private prayers) by her friend, Dawn reluctantly relented. To Dawn’s surprise, attending the study opened her eyes to a truth she wasn’t aware of before: She desperately needed Jesus Christ.
After a few months in the small group, Dawn came to saving faith in Christ. Her decision set in motion a chain of events that led Dawn to found and run a unique neighborhood Bible study ministry. Getting Real Ministries [GRM] is geared for women like her who grew up in church and know about Jesus but don’t realize that they need to know Him personally to experience true soul satisfaction.
Dawn is still amazed that she ever agreed to participate in the women’s Bible study at First Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Illinois. But as the weeks passed, Dawn grew increasingly impressed with a ministry that drew nearly 200 women from 35 different churches and roughly a dozen denominations.
“It was a melting pot of people all in search of God,” Dawn says. “I think that’s what made it so effective. This was the first time many of us studied the Bible. After a few months I gave my life to Christ during that first study. I learned in detail who Jesus really was, how deeply He loved me, and how much I needed Him.”
After coming to faith in Christ, Dawn and the other women in her small group prayed for her husband’s salvation. Their prayers were answered a few years later when Tony trusted Christ, and the couple soon plugged into First Presbyterian Church.
God’s plans for Dawn were just beginning. When the women’s ministry director of the church left, Dawn agreed to oversee the ministry for seven years.
Then, in 2005 one of Dawn’s neighbors asked her to start a women’s Bible study in the gated golf course community where their two families lived. Dawn knew the risks of evangelizing women who in the world’s eyes had it all but accepted the challenge to lead the study. She found curriculum palatable for a non-Christian audience, distributed a letter inviting women in the neighborhood to join, and then prayed that God would fill open seats.
To Dawn’s astonishment, 23 women arrived at her home for the first meeting. The study blossomed in subsequent months, even attracting women from surrounding communities.
“My target demographic for the study was de-churched women,” Dawn says. “Everyone would have come in and identified with a specific denomination, such as Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, or Lutheran, but other than that they didn’t have a deep faith or relationship with Jesus Christ, and a lot of the women had had bad experiences growing up in church and had stopped going as adults. That’s why I called them de-churched. These were women I could connect and identify with—I used to be one of them.”
By 2007, with Dawn’s small group now ministering to 50 women at a time, God encouraged Dawn to establish GRM, a women’s Bible study ministry built on this “de-churched” concept. To lead GRM full time, the 41-year-old mother of three enrolled at Moody Bible Institute in 2008. Dawn graduated with a BA in Biblical Studies and Communications in December 2013.
“Dawn had the drive, calling, and giftedness, but at Moody she refined those skills to expand her ministry,” says Jamie Janosz, one of Dawn’s professors at Moody. “She sees the Bible not as a philosophy or historical book but as the living, breathing Word of God that transforms lives.”
Based in Aurora, GRM reaches more than 100 women in four countries, now offers Bible study resources for teens and young adults, and runs service projects to aid the poor. In 15 years, GRM has helped hundreds of women trust in Christ and lay a biblical foundation for their faith.
“Most of the women in our studies have given their lives to Christ,” Dawn says. “We’re pretty vocal about their need to come to faith in Christ. They start to see it during a study and it’s really fun to watch God work and lead them to this decision.”