Wednesday, August 15, 2007

CHANGE THE WORLD...and grab a pizza

Want to change the city? Go grab a pizza.

More specifically, go grab a pizza at the Lou Malnati's Pizzeria on West Ogden Avenue in Chicago.

"So how," you ask, "will my scarfing down a large pepperoni change the city?" The answer to that question is a fascinating story of how the church and private enterprise can work together to change peoples' lives for the Kingdom.

West Ogden Avenue runs through Lawndale, one of Chicago's poorest and toughest neighborhoods. One reason why Lawndale is in such trouble that poverty begats poverty. As economic conditions decline, businesses leave--taking with them desperately-needed jobs and the income they generate. It makes for a bleak urban landscape, with little hope for improvement.

That is, until Wayne Gordon of Lawndale Community Church approached the Malnati brothers. Wayne, along with a dedicated and talented multi-ethnic team, has developed an amazing ministry in Lawndale--including neighborhood renovation, sports programs, a full-service medical clinic, counseling, and much more. But with all the great things the church has accomplished, the lack of jobs for Lawndale's young people and adults loomed as a chronic sore. So when Wayne, who knows the Malnati brothers well (they're strong Christians), heard that they were contemplating opening a tenth store, he challenged them: "Why don't you tithe this store?" They accepted the challenge, and opened a Lou Malnati's right across the street from the church. They hired their staff from within the neighborhood, invested a ton of time and money in training and management, opened their doors, and hoped for the best. Oh--and any profits from the restaurant will be donated to Lawndale Community Church (there's a plaque by the front door that says so). Is that cool, or what?

Except that one problem quickly surfaced: the restaurant was losing money big time. The 90-95% of the Lawndale community who are law-abiding citizens tend to stay indoors at night, as we would if we were in their shoes. Night after night, the restaurant was deserted.

The Malnati brothers finally approached Wayne to let him know that they'd decided between themselves the maximum amount of money they were willing to lose before they'd be forced to close their doors. "We don't want to tell you the amount," they said. "But we're getting close."

So what does God do but bump Kyle and I into Wayne at an urban ministry conference right around that time. He shared the situation with us--and we got a brainstorm. "Wayne, we're going to put every single one of our CSM groups into that restaurant during their mission trip, even if it's miles out of their way. They're going to enjoy the pizza, meet the staff, and hear the story of what you guys are trying to do. It will be a ministry in itself."

The restaurant is still open. CSM might be its single biggest customer. And our groups are performing a vital ministry, learning firsthand about the issues inner-city neighborhoods face, and stuffing their faces with great pizza--all at the same time.

Only God could put together something as fun as this. Oh, and if you're ever in Chicago, drop in to Lou's place on West Ogden. I recommend the Stuffed Special.

- Noel Becchetti, President

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