A new pastor at Bridgeport’s oldest Christian congregation found her calling at age 14 — and she intends to enhance young Chicagoans’ lives by exuding the sense of community that enfolded her.
“I was exposed to pastors who acted as leaders, educators and social workers, who helped broken, crumbled youth through life,” said the Rev. Nicolette “Nic” Peñaranda, 27, of her defining experience as a teenager at a summer leadership camp.
“I was in so much pain,” she said. “Being connected was such a big thing for my physical and mental wellness. I decided then [13 years ago], ‘I want to pay it forward and be that for others, especially young people.’”
Peñaranda, who started her first pastoral call July 14 at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, 643 W. 31st St., aims to put her mission into action at a church that already boasts a long history of activism and social justice ministry.
The 154-year-old church already runs a free “store” of sorted and donated clothes, shoes, books and toys called “God’s Closet” — open to the community from 5 to 7 p.m. each Tuesday and from 10 a.m. to noon on Fridays; serves a free community meal at the same hours as God’s Closet each week, and hosts youth urban summer campfires every Wednesday evening through Aug. 14, complete with making s’mores and signing songs alongside a Bible story.
The church also leases space to other ministries, including Midwest Books for Prisoners and the Bridgeport Alliance activist group. The Franciscan Outreach’s program to help the homeless recently started housing its young volunteers at Trinity House, the Lutheran church’s parsonage. The volunteers live together for a year while they help staff programs for the homeless.
The church’s independent spirit started early, when the congregation elected its first woman church council president in 1977 and promptly notified its governing body that it had switched its affiliation to the more progressive Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA).
The church’s congregants and volunteers continue to forge their own way. They recently organized the Bridgeport segment of “Lights for Liberty” and hosted a vigil to protest human-rights violations occurring at U.S. immigrant detention centers.
“I feel really blessed to be part of a congregation that does this kind of mission work without being told,” said Peñaranda, who earned her master’s of divinity degree with a concentration in black church studies from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. “We’re not doing these things to get people in the pews. We’re doing it because it’s right. Because people deserve dignity. How do we make sure there’s a bus on 31st Street? How do we ensure that people who need help get sleep in a safe place?”
Peñaranda has an ace up her sleeve in seeing the church’s outreach grow. She also works as the Chicago city director of DOOR — Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection, a program that helps young people develop leadership skills by living, working and traveling together.
She envisions hiring local young people from many ethnicities to work at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, and providing a safe haven for Chicago Public Schools students to eat and spend time in the summers.
“My intent is that our [church] staff looks as diverse as the city itself,” Peñaranda said.
She also wants to pay the church’s volunteers, who regularly spend 11 hours on Tuesdays sorting, bagging, exchanging and working with thousands of pounds of clothing donations that community residents leave at the church’s community center doorstep.
“I’d like to elevate our commitment toward our ministries, and, at the same time, disrupt the cycles of poverty, homelessness and food insecurity,” she said.
To turn those plans into reality, Peñaranda also foresees raising money to touch-up and install air conditioning in the church and its community center.
“It should be an escape from the environment,” she said.
God has another big plan for Peñaranda and her husband, Dennis, who works as an engineer — a baby girl due in mid-August. After her maternity leave, the passionate pastor will renew her mission.
“If I was to imagine a five-year plan, it would be to operate a community center where we can house the resources necessary to continue to build Bridgeport and accompany those who are new and old to Bridgeport,” she said.
Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.