Danville's Hope Center is anything but a traditional church.
Originally an outreach ministry of the Connexion Church, Hope Center — located in the middle of the Fair Oaks public housing complex — eventually became a house of worship in its own right.
The Rev. NATHAN LENSTRA's 75 parishioners include young people from low-income families, kids who need help with their homework and adults in need of financial advice and jobs.
Staff writer Tim Mitchell caught up with Lenstra, 39, for a wide-ranging conversation.
What's your earliest memory of church while growing up in Galena?
I remember being part of the kids' Christmas pageant. I was probably 6 or 7 years old. I played the part of either Joseph or one of the shepherds.
Back then, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Baseball was my first favorite sport, and when I was young, I was totally determined to become a professional pitcher. When I got older, I wanted to be a historian and an archaeologist.
And then I ended up going into chemistry education at the University of Illinois. After I graduated from the university, I was looking for a job, and a job was open at Danville High School.
I taught high school chemistry for a few years.
How did you get the call to the ministry?
It started in college. I was involved with the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and led a small group Bible study there.
I knew that I enjoyed studying the Bible. Through that experience, I came to realize my future was in ministry.
Tell us about your experience on a North Dakota Native American reservation.
I got a position teaching at the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation for two years. The school was on the reservation, and I lived on the reservation.
I was involved with the local church and its ministry. I mostly taught special education and did a lot of math tutoring.
North Dakota is cold and desolate, especially in the wintertime. It was a challenging experience for me because most of the people who live there are Native Americans. Being a white person, I was a minority living there.
I think it is good for all white people to have an experience where they are a minority. It was also very challenging for me. It was hard to connect with other people and become a close community, but that happened over time.
When I came back from the Indian reservation, I had a heart for that kind of ministry. It inspired me to start up Hope Center.
What was your plan?
I wanted to do a ministry that was cross-cultural for people with lower incomes. The Lakeview College of Nursing was doing a program out here and needed some people to help out with the kids. The lady who was running it went to my church and asked if people wanted to help.
I started out with a Bible club for elementary kids one day a week. It grew from there. We called it Hope Center because we wanted this place to be a place of hope.
Later, the Housing Authority gave us a space. We want to serve children, youth and families living in and near Fair Oaks with the love of Jesus and to see them grow and flourish in all areas of life. Our focus is on relationships, believing that life-on-life relationships are the best method for effecting long-term transformation.
We don't want to do things for people or give handouts that often create dependency and dishonor the gifts and abilities that God has given people. Instead, we want to empower and to come alongside people in their journey through life, helping them develop what God has already given them, so they can become all that God has purposed for them.
How did you meet your wife, Lauren?
We actually met serving together in ministry. We have had this ministry at Fair Oaks since 2007. Every summer, we do a vacation Bible school out here. Lauren had gone on a mission trip to Peru and did stuff with kids and youth. She was thinking why she couldn't do this back in her own community when she got home.
One day, someone told Lauren what we were doing out here at Fair Oaks. In 2014, she helped out with our vacation Bible school. We held a carnival that fall, and she helped with that. Then she stayed involved with our middle school group.
I was so impressed with Lauren's faith and her loving heart. One day, I asked her to go out to eat with me. I wanted to talk about the ministry we were doing, but I really wanted to know her more.
That meal turned out to be our first date. By the next June, we were married, and our daughter Hannah was born the following May.
What ministry are you most proud of?
I am proud of the work I have done mentoring young men over the years. Some of them, I have been with for seven or eight years. God has changed their lives. They all have jobs, and they all have graduated from high school.
A lot of them didn't have positive male role models. The dad of one young man I mentored was shot and killed in Chicago. Some of them don't have dads because the dads choose not to be a part of their lives.
Last thing: How'd you become a Cubs fan?
My grandfather was a big Cubs fan. When the Cubs won the World Series, I thought about my grandfather, who lived his whole life and never got to see that.
In the summer, he would be by his radio, sitting outside at a picnic table listening to the Cubs games. Beginning when I was seven years old, we would take a bus trip to Wrigley Field for one game a year. My dad, myself, my grandfather, my uncle and my brother would all go together.
Being with them was just as important as attending the game.