City of Refuge serves youth in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods

Coaches at City of Refuge pose on the field
Coaches at City of Refuge pose on the field | Stephanie Marquardt

God’s miraculous provision keeps Chicago’s City of Refuge ministry in business, but the most important part of the ministry is the way it draws community groups together, founder Stephanie Marquardt said.

City of Refuge Chicago started in 2018 after Marquardt, her husband, Kurt, and Chicago West Bible Church Pastors Jon Kelly and Kent Steiner experienced a calling to minister in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods, she told The Christian Post.

Marquardt started sports leagues to teach youth valuable life skills through sports. Before COVID-19, the program had over 1,000 students who were learning archery, baseball and basketball. Each team receives coaching from a police officer, a faith leader and a local nonprofit leader, she said.

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Marquardt is also a devoted sports fan, often using metaphors from sports to talk about her work.

“What’s distinctive is that we follow what we call the three-legged stool,” she said. “It’s getting civic, sacred and secular parts of society to work together. I think that’s very biblical.”

The combined approach allows each group to use their strengths most effectively, she said. It also lets community leaders form relationships and work together.

The ministry rapidly expanded to the Chicago neighborhoods of Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale, Englewood and Roseland. These neighborhoods have some of the city’s highest murder rates, worst schools and highest poverty rates.

Marquardt said she funds her work entirely by prayer. She takes her inspiration from Christian leader George Müller, a 19th century Christian who ran an orphanage without asking the public for donations. Her ministry’s first big challenge was to get baseball uniforms for her program’s participants before she even knew the number of kids who would enroll in the program. She estimated the uniforms would cost $150,000.

On a plane trip to Florida with her husband, Marquardt prayed and read Müller’s writings, she said. One of his statements stood out to her.

“ ... in leaning upon the living God alone, we are beyond disappointment, and beyond being forsaken because of death, or want of means, or want of love, or because of the claims of other work," the passage reads. 

Soon after she got off the plane, she received a phone call from a Chicago sports charity called Good Sports, Marquardt said. She had attended a charity event weeks before and spoken about her ministry. The group called her without her request. At first, she thought they wanted her to buy something.

“No, we’re going to give you everything,” she remembers the group saying over the phone. “The only thing we can’t give you is size youth medium pants and bats.”

Good Sports told Marquardt they had to know how many uniforms she needed quickly, but she did not know at the time how many kids would join the program, she said. She estimated the numbers during her devotions the next day.

“I needed to get an order for kids I didn’t have,” she said. “And it was absolutely right.”

Sergeant Jermaine Harris, an officer of Chicago’s 15th Precinct, said the programs provided by the ministry have resulted in lower crime in Chicago's neighborhoods. When parks are deserted, drug dealers and gang members use them. But when children and families play in a park, criminals stay away because they don’t want to commit crimes in public, he told The Christian Post.

“We choose a location or a site that’s a hot spot. We declare and really make it a safe space. The gangs understand [that] these are kids playing. When there are kids out there playing, you can relate and understand,” he said.

Playing with youth and relating to the community also encourages police officers. Police often face emotionally grueling calls about murder, abuse and humanity at its worst, Harris said. Seeing good things happen in their communities encourages them to face the worst, he added.

“In the nature of policing day to day, we would never have an opportunity to engage with a family or do something positive like this. No one calls the police to tell them good news,” Harris explained.

He also said he appreciates how City of Refuge Chicago emphasizes the resources the city’s most desperate neighborhoods already have and helps residents use them. When people join the program, they make friends and create networks that allow them to help themselves. In some cases, people in need have met neighbors they can borrow from through the program, he said.

“We start to put people as outcasts and it further drives the division. What we start to do as a society is act as if they’re not there. Constant avoidance is one of the reasons young people join gangs. The more they feel avoided, the more they want that camaraderie,” Harris said. “These kids have bright futures. All it takes sometimes is that person to say, ‘I see you.’”

COVID-19 and the unrest after George Floyd’s death have made it difficult to care for Chicago’s communities, Marquardt said.

In response to the virus, City of Refuge Chicago adapted by focusing on baseball so children could still play while following health guidelines, such as remaining far apart, frequent hand sanitizing and masking to protect coaches and youth participants. To further meet the needs of youth, the ministry opened safe locations where students could meet to access computers and the internet to attend school online.

“In COVID, you feel like a wide receiver because you get the ball and you have to pin and stop and dodge and do things you don’t think your body can do. It’s changed everything,” she said.

After riots following Floyd’s death destroyed local grocery stores, City of Refuge Chicago partnered with megachurch Harvest Bible Chapel to provide food for the families involved with the nonprofit, Marquardt said. Once again, the money and help came after she prayed.

“I wish everybody had the chance to know these people. My life is so much richer from the relationships I’ve made. It isn’t City of Refuge and it isn’t me; it’s all the people working together. There’s miracle after miracle after miracle,” she said.

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