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Reaching Working-Class Immigrants in Chicago’s Chinatown

CCUC bought the building, named it the Pui Tak Center, and established it as the physical home of their community service arm. A year later, David Wu was hired as the center’s executive director. Wu points out that the 30,000-squarefoot building, Chinatown’s only historical landmark, is a perfect portrait of the gospel — something corrupted by man has been redeemed by God and now serves people in God’s name. He insists it is no coincidence that the city’s most distinctive example of Chinese archiWhen Wendy Chai left her native China tecture has become the point at which for Chicago two years ago, her primary Chinese immigrants begin acclimating concern was finding a job. But she also to a new life in the United States. “Even in our outreach work we are needed to learn English. A number of people recommended that she check out trying to connect this need people the free ESL classes at Pui Tak Center, have — to learn English — with our located in the heart of the city’s vision of sharing the gospel with the Chinatown.Two weeks after arriving in people around Chinatown,” says Wu. Chicago, Chai began her first course. “Every year, people are getting bap“Now I can speak and write basic sen- tized at CCUC, and I think that is the tences,” says Chai, 57. “I don’t have to most important measure — not simply becoming active at church, but really avoid talking to Americans.” The Pui Tak Center is a ministry of doing work to build a Christian life.” the Chinese Christian Union Church While adult education has been a cen(CCUC), which opened in 1903 with tral focus, many new immigrants are in the goal of reaching the city’s growing urgent need of basic orientation to the number of Chinese immigrants. Over city. CCUC’s Individual Community the years, the church has offered English Program meets this need by assisting classes for adults, sponsored homework immigrants with legal, medical, and edututoring and Chinese language classes cational concerns. By distributing over for children, and even opened up its gym 300 welcome packages a year to newto the community. The church started comers, the Pui Tak Center begins to Chinatown’s first preschool in 1953 build relationships with immigrants who and operated a monthly medical clinic might otherwise have neither the time nor the inclination to attend church on throughout the ’60s and ’70s. In the late ’80s, the church’s ministry a Sunday morning. From the start CCUC has taken a to the community had expanded so much that additional space was urgently needed. holistic approach to community services. Just down the street from CCUC stood “All of our services here at the Pui Tak a monument to traditional Chinese archi- Center focus on one thing — helping tecture, a building constructed in 1928 new immigrants in Chinatown rebuild as headquarters for a Chinatown mer- their lives,” says Wu. “On a typical day, chants association. The building served 600 to 800 people come through our in that capacity until 1988, when an FBI doors. Many are new immigrants from raid exposed a multimillion-dollar rack- China who come to learn English or to eteering operation and it was confiscated seek advice from our staff. Some realize by the federal government. In 1993 that they need help rebuilding their PRISM 2009


spiritual lives, too.” The success of the ESL program has been fueled by the immigrants’ earnest desire to learn, even when it means an early morning class after an all-night shift at a restaurant. Wu recalls one student who drove two hours from Racine,Wis., to attend classes. Because the program receives some governmental support, the classes cover job training, career development, and computer literacy. In addition, CCUC offers ESL Bible classes, which allows the staff to touch on the spiritual as well as the physical and economic aspects of each immigrant’s life. “ESL allows us to walk with immigrants for two to three years,” explains Wu, “building long-term relationships that would otherwise be impossible.” “I think evangelism is what really drives the church,” he continues, “but a lot of churches miss the immigrant working class because it’s so hard to reach out to them with their demanding work schedules.” The recession has provided an opportunity for the church to expand its outreach. Says Wu, “Our ESL instructors are working to create a new healthcare curriculum for our classes to provide a broader market for immigrants. We are also developing courses tailored specifically to restaurant workers and hotel housekeepers — with English they need to do their job.” The joy and enthusiasm that the staff exhibit in serving immigrants explain why Wendy Chai, and others like her, beam with appreciation for the Christians at Pui Tak Center. “They have given us a new life that I’m very proud of,” she says. More importantly, the gospel is being lived out before them in practical, tangible, and significant ways. n Daniel Collins is a freelance writer and video producer in Chicago, Ill.“Making a Difference” profiles congregations that put arms and legs on the gospel. Nominate a church at

Reaching Working-Class Immigrants in Chicago's Downtown  

Making a Difference July 2009