Kirk Bell leaned in toward them when he spoke. He wore blue jeans, a T-shirt and a white cowboy hat with a Marlboro logo on the back.
It was quiet at last, the weed trimmers the teenagers had been using were laid down, along with the rakes. Huge black trash bags were filled with the clippings of overgrown grass that had been cut from the walkways of the old military installation. The youngsters held water bottles in their hands and the image of the tall black man in their steady gaze.
They were glad for the rest. They'd been sweating all week -- working hard for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, hoping dinner would be better.
Kirk was here to tell them about the folks moving here as units were renovated. His ministry was helping renovate the old brick buildings, but volunteers were needed to cut the grass and make the grounds presentable. The residents here were from the projects, plain apartment buildings that housed the city's needy, many of them hardened criminals or just-released inmates. The city is tearing down city housing, displacing thousands to neighborhoods across Chicago.
Behind them, a child's cry could still be heard in one of the few occupied apartments.
These units in a former military base didn't look appealing, unless you'd been someplace worse.
The teenagers sitting on the ground had seen someplace worse.
They'd been in the shelters where younger children fight for attention.
They'd been through the shelter's kitchens where the stench of institutional food preparation could turn your stomach. They'd been in the sticky, hot soup kitchens where fellow diners eat and run back to the streets, hoping for a rain shower or at least a breeze in the Windy City.
The former gang member turned preacher perched on a cooler and told the teens his story. By the time he was their age he'd made it all the way from the city's projects to a gang. At 18 he walked away -- a feat made easier with a Bible in his hand. He's held the Bible close every day since, and when he gets a chance to talk Jesus to teenagers, he jumps at it, and they listen.
Everyone you see watches you, he said. They read you like a book. They watch what you do.
So do the right thing.
With a clever mix of bathroom humor and gut-wrenching stories, he held their attention and told them to hold fast to their faith and spread it like wildfire.
There was no doubt in my mind that they would.
These weren't children from the streets of any city -- they are members of the Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church youth group. They'd come to Chicago in a heat wave -- to work, to sweat, to learn, to pray.
They did all that and more.
The first hot night in Chicago, they'd heard a poem written by a homeless woman.
It began like this:
"Look me in the eyes at least,
when you pass me by on the street
whether or not you answer my plea for money:
my eyes are the poorest of me --
require only your two cents when we meet --
and are more in dire need of these than your feet."
In the days and nights ahead, they went from shelters to soup kitchens to sidewalks where those without hope seek safety.
By their last night in the sticky city, these students recapped their week.
They'd knocked down walls and framed new ones at an old crack house turned ministry site.
They'd fed the homeless and held young children. They'd looked them all in the eye, and they had been fed themselves.
They accomplished more than they thought they could. They learned that stereotypes can be turned off.
They found that to help someone isn't nearly as fulfilling as to simply say, "You matter."
They worried that too soon they would forget the faces, the stories and the lessons of those down on their luck.
The church sent them on the mission trip to seek God, to serve others.
The redemption they found was a bonus.
The News Leader