A small crowd gathered at the corner of Wilson Avenue and Hazel Street before the bus pulled in. Some talked among themselves while others waited quietly and expectantly for The Night Ministry to arrive.
The ministry’s health outreach mobile is more of a large camping trailer similar to the size of a tour bus. The inside is fitted with seats and compartment-like stations one might expect at a hospital. The medical room is stocked with supplies, an exam table and a nurse on staff who provides services such as HIV and STD testing, blood pressure and sugar checks, among others.
The bus serves as an all-purpose center, equal-parts clinic, shelter and a safe social gathering space with the added benefit of counseling services by clergy from a variety of different religious backgrounds.
The Night Ministry, which includes two youth shelters and a comprehensive youth outreach program in addition to the health outreach bus, fills a void in Chicago neighborhoods when local shelters close for the evening.
These services are all free of charge in conjunction with food donated by local organizations.
“If [The Night Ministry] wasn’t here, there wouldn’t be anybody out here,” said Robert Gasior, a 42-year-old Chicago resident who has been visiting the ministry for five years. “If they weren’t here, people would have a harder time with what they go through.”
According to Gasior, services for underserved populations in the Uptown area are absent three days out of the week. The Night Ministry has stepped and provided residents with access to healthcare and other vital services.
The Night Ministry’s reputation precedes it. Everyone is welcome on all of the bus’s six stops on its two routes regardless of age, religion, race or any other demographic.
“We try to be mindful of the particular needs, the particular culture and the particular context of each neighborhood we serve,” said Reverend David Weasley, community and congregational relations coordinator at The Night Ministry.
The Reverend is relatively new to the organization, but he fits in immediately. According to Weasley, The Night Ministry provides a ministry of presence to the Chicago communities it serves.
“We go to be present where they’re at,” Weasley said. “Where they’re at emotionally, where they’re at spiritually, where they’re at economically, but also literally where they’re at.”
Though originally conceived by a foundation of about 20 various, faith-based congregations, The Night Ministry does not set out to proselytize. According to Weasley, many of the volunteers and staff see their work with the ministry as an extension of their devotional life. However, the non-denominational organization does not attempt to convert visitors as part of its mission.
Founded in 1976, The Night Ministry is the product of an idea, to an extent, from local pastor Tom Behrens, one of the ministry’s first employees. Behrens spent years on the streets of Chicago, often wearing his clergy collar, operating solely out of his car’s trunk to find the population’s needs firsthand. The current night ministry, home-based in Lakeview, largely grew out of what Behrens learned from being out with the people at night.
As of 1976, youth services and healthcare are still underfunded and drastically inaccessible to the most vulnerable of the city’s population.
According to data from the 2010 Census, poverty in Illinois has risen 24 percent in the last decade. Nearly 22 percent of Chicago’s population now lives below the poverty line, and this includes over 205,000 children.
Poverty in the state is growing significantly, according to ProgressIllinois.com. Nearly 1.7 million residents live below the poverty line, this includes more than 581,000 children in 2009—a rise from 443,000 ten years prior. For a family of three that line is $18,310 per year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Night Ministry is on the front lines of providing consistent services to the city’s most at-risk populations, according to Megan Groves, marketing and communications coordinator at the ministry. The buses arrive on a set schedule to provide visitors with a reliable support network.
According to Groves, more than 4,000 volunteers spent more than 25,000 hours with The Night Ministry between July 2009–10. In that same time, the organization’s health outreach bus saw around 56,000 people while its three housing programs provided shelter for 400 youth and their children.
“We think it’s important to be accepting,” Groves said. “And to accept everyone no matter who they are, where they are in their lives and no matter what they’ve been through.”
For more information or to donate to The Night Ministry, visit TheNightMinistry.org.