Skip to main content

Creating a Youth Sports Complex

October 7, 2020

Playing baseball, basketball, and football were Pastor John Zayas’s salvation, he says, as he grew up in a harsh part of Chicago.

“In my toughest years, sports were my path away from the gangs,” said Zayas, pastor of Grace and Peace, a Christian Reformed congregation in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood.

Also important to mention, Zayas said, was the salvation that came through being a part of a youth ministry. “Having faith in Christ was crucial,” he said. “And sports have always been a tool I’ve been able to use to spread the gospel.”

Zaya’s background in sports as a way to evangelize young people plays an important role, he added, in throwing his support behind a plan to transform a parcel of vacant lots near his church into a community center with sports and recreation programs for youth.

“There are a lot of issues with gangs and drugs in our community,” said Zayas. “What do you do if you are a kid between ages 15 and 26 and are running the streets? We want to get kids off the streets and mentor them.”

According to the online community newsletter Block Club Chicago, the Chicago City Council recently approved the $2 million sale of the city-owned vacant land for the development of the North Austin Community Center.

The project has been in development since 2017 as a partnership between Grace and Peace Church and By the Hand Club for Kids, a Christ-centered, after-school program that takes kids by the hand, starting in kindergarten, and walks with them all the way through college – mind, body, and soul.

The community is home to families who on average make less than $30,000 a year, placing them not too far above the  poverty line. With a lack of resources, families in the area have embraced the project because it “fits their needs,” said Zayas.

The North Austin Community Center will be a nonprofit, charitable organization, said Zayas, that will use sports and other outreach activities to foster youth development, “prevent juvenile delinquency, promote health and safety, reduce community violence, and improve race relations in Austin and other surrounding neighborhoods of Chicago.”

The campus will offer youth soccer and futsal leagues and tournaments; a young children’s soccer program; lacrosse, baseball, softball, volleyball, and basketball activities; a dance academy; a physical therapy and rehab clinic; the Fueling Station (coffee/tea, healthy meals, snacks); adult soccer leagues; low-cost fitness programs; and special events. The plan is to subsidize these programs through special donations and scholarships to low-income families, said Zayas.

Construction is set to start soon, and the complex is expected to be completed during the 2021 school year, says the newsletter.

Grace and Peace Church is partnering with Young Life so that young people at the center will also have access to camping and outdoor education programs.

“My hope is that when a young person walks into the center, they can receive a quality physical experience but also a spiritual experience as well,” said Zayas.

Grace and Peace Church meets in a converted paint factory a few blocks from the site of the future community center. When you visit on Sunday mornings, you enter a spacious warehouse area with high ceilings and pillars and a cement floor that still bears splatters and splashes from the old factory’s paint-making days.

The worship service begins at 9:30 a.m. with prayer, and the format is flexible so that people can stand and move and speak as they feel led by God. This is a key factor at Grace and Peace -- allowing the Spirit to take hold and to use personal expression. Following prayer is a high-energy time of music, more prayer, and then a sermon, usually from Zayas.

The church itself has a wide-ranging ministry, including leadership classes for members and food giveaways, and members often walk the streets and pray with people. They offer shelter to women in need, provide classes on coping with mental illness, and hold a summer camp in the church for young people (an especially popular outreach).

Zayas said that once the community center is built, Grace and Peace will likely hold services there.

Meanwhile, Grace and Peace, the ministry By the Hand, and former soccer star Andy McDermott are in the process of raising more money to help pay for the community center.

The area where the center will be built bridges the predominantly black community in Austin and a nearby large Latino community. As a result, it has the goal of bringing these groups together to play sports and take part in other activities, Zayas said.

“This project will be another arm of Grace and Peace. We are doing this with that in mind because networking and connection are huge for us.”

For more information and/or to donate as a part of this effort, contact Pastor John Zayas at [email protected].