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Stronger Together

Stronger Together

Alum Matt DeMateo: ‘Now is when the real work starts.'
  • Linda Piepenbrink
  • September 8, 2021

It’s a sunny, busy Friday morning on Chicago’s West Side. A dozen energetic volunteers at the New Life Center are tossing fresh cabbages, bananas, and meat into large boxes while a line forms for the food pick-up. If they had time to look around the corner, they would notice cars lined up for six blocks along Lawndale Avenue. Others have arrived on foot or taken a succession of city buses. One middle-aged woman pushes a baby buggy packed with gallons of milk and a box of food.

“For them that lost their jobs, this is a huge boost,” says Matt DeMateo ’03, New Life Center’s 38-year-old executive director. “And for many, this is their primary source of food each week.”

It’s a big operation. As the pandemic took hold a year ago, Matt partnered with the Greater Chicago Food Depository and grocers like Trader Joe’s to feed 1,000 families a week and expand to seven sites. Even if the quarantine is over, 10,000 people still show up on Tuesdays and Fridays for a new supply of food.

The workers are happy to offer hope. Abelardo Colin, 38, oversees the team and says the work is rewarding. “I can see the joy of the families that come and see they’ve been blessed with all this food.”

Matt affirms him. “He’s usually the first to get here, the last to leave. He’s done an amazing job.”

Matt walks along the assembly line, greeting the other workers. He picks up a box of Touch Down Squares cereal and laughs. “Hey, why are we giving away Green Bay Packers stuff?” Here in Bears territory, one of the workers doesn’t miss a beat: “Cause they’re not worth keeping!”

Jokes aside, the COVID-19 pandemic and consequent joblessness that created this urgent need is serious. Across the street, a wall mural outside their church lists the names of people who died from COVID 19 in Little Village/Lawndale, the epicenter of the hardest-hit neighborhood in Illinois.

Peace Walk. Matt (left) walks in the crowd with the mother of Adam Toledo, killed in March 2021.

“We’ve buried well over 100 people, and multiple of our young people have lost their parents to COVID,” Matt says. “It's been a heavy season, and then the violence has spiked in a big way. And so we’re fighting different battles of violence, of COVID, of racism. And we’re working on all these fronts and just trying to build hope and healing for young people.”

A new crisis comes to light as Matt spots Lillian Lazu, the principal of Little Village Academy, waving at him. “One of my student’s house burned down last night,” she says as he joins her across the street in front of the elementary school. “And it’s near the one-year-anniversary of his father’s death from COVID.”

She tells of the house fire that claimed the life of a 53-year-old man and displaced her student’s family. Matt’s ready to help. “Whatever you need—so we have emergency funds that we can give right away, and then we can wrap around the family,” he assures her.

Within minutes Matt is connecting with a case manager and a victim advocate, Alex Mailhot-Beutel ’16 MA, directing the staff members to pay a few months of storage and help find a new apartment—what he calls “resiliency services.”

Last night, New Life Center’s street outreach team responded to three gang shootings, in which a 19-year-old passed away. “Now our victim advocate will start to work on funeral planning, connect with the family, and try to really bring hope—the hope of Christ and love to the family in a difficult season,” Matt says.

“It’s been obviously a crazy three weeks with Adam Toledo and everybody,” he says, referring to the 13-year-old boy who was fatally shot by a police officer after a late-night chase.

In response, Matt commissioned a mural that reads “We Need Each Other” with a winged silhouette of a boy. Mourners have taped notes to the fence, where thousands of wilting carnations line the ground and partially deflated balloons hang at half-mast.

The week after Adam Toledo was shot, Matt met with Adam’s mom and was with her when she viewed the police video of the shooting. He also arranged a peace walk through the neighborhood that drew 2,000 people, ending at the alley where Adam died.

“Now is when the real work starts, as we walk with her for the long haul,” he says.

“When the cameras and everything are gone, we’ll still be there walking together.”

Matt does a lot of “walking together.” He’s been mentoring 19-year-old Alex Ramon since Alex was a young boy living across the street. Alex was shot a few years ago from gang crossfire not meant for him. Now he is a high school graduate and one of New Life Center’s food distribution staff leaders, paid through government grants.

Matt started mentoring kids while studying at Moody Bible Institute. His first Practical Christian Ministry assignment was with By the Hand kids club in the Cabrini-Green housing projects. “I was in year one with Danita [Travis] when she just started it. Mentoring in Cabrini was a big part that guided me into children and youth ministry.”

He learned from his Moody professors too. “Wally Cirafisi was a big one on discipleship. Dr. Samuel Naaman impacted me a ton, and Dr. Winfred Neely [’12] in my preaching class. Those were some of the key ones. Just seeing their heart and love for people, for young people. It was beautiful to see just their life-on-life, being able to walk with us.”

He uses that same approach at New Life Centers. The organization started in 2005 when the founding pastor of New Life Community Church, Mark Jobe ’84, ran into a boy from church who’d been shot a few months earlier and joined a street gang. He realized they weren’t going to reach kids like him through normal church. So he created New Life Centers as a separate nonprofit agency. Matt joined the staff as youth pastor in 2006 and his wife, Sarah (Haglund) ’02, ran the church’s after-school program. Today the organization has 65 staff and 280 mentor matches, walking life-on-life with kids. They have an after-school program five days a week for 125 children. And in 2016 New Life Centers was awarded the top mentoring program in the state of Illinois.

“We have a whole army of mentors really trying to connect with these young people who are disconnected (meaning not in work, not at school), and show them a better way,” he says. Matt bases their ministry on 1 Thessalonians 2:8: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.”

“That’s the power of the gospel and life together,” he says.

Coaching Little League. Matt works with boys and girls at baseball practice in Piotrowski Park, Chicago.

A natural part of that mentoring takes place on the playing field or gym. While the pandemic halted sports programs in 2020, this year Matt and his team started them up again—with boxing, running, baseball, volleyball, basketball, soccer, and football. “For us it’s about building the beloved community. Sports is a vehicle for relationship,” says Matt, who coaches the traveling Little Sluggers and is president of Little Village Little League. “Play is a powerful tool; in fact, it’s one of the most powerful ways to deal with trauma in young people. I love the relationships, intentional time together, reclaiming public spaces, and building community together.”

Matt has held citywide basketball tournaments, using Moody’s Solheim Center as the venue. Troy Fichter ’02, who runs the gym, lived in Culbertson Hall on the same floor with Matt. “Moody opens their doors and helps us whenever they can,” Matt says.

“We program about 2,500 kids through sports,” he adds. “Baseball is my main one. I’m at the park like five nights a week.”

To add and improve green space, Matt worked with community leaders and secured grants to turn a contaminated industrial site into La Villita Park, a 22-acre, $11 million park that opened in Little Village in 2014. Then the Chicago Cubs gave New Life Centers $240,000 to upgrade the community parks.

During the shutdowns of 2020, violence was up. But Memorial Day 2021 had the least number of shootings. One possible reason? Matt and his team worked with community leaders to organize free cookouts in various neighborhoods, including Little Village, West Pilsen, and Brighton Park.

On a Tuesday afternoon Manuel Torres, a coach who was mentored by Matt, watches kids practice baseball in Piotrowski Park and remembers when gangs used to hang out and smoke there. “We have no incidents in this park like we used to in the beginning,” he says. “Matt knows and works a lot with those kids from the West Side. And now when we do get those guys, they’re actually here playing.”

Matt and his team started a 16-inch softball league for kids involved in street gangs. At the end of the summer the gangs play against each other in a final game called Playing for Peace. The hope is that rival gangs begin to realize that they’re not so different from each other. “We’re trying to challenge mindsets all the time,” Matt says.

He also looks for jobs and career-building opportunities for them. Matt calls out to a young man walking by. “Hey big man!” Then he speaks to him in Spanish. “I told him we’re ready to hire him if he’s ready to sign up.”

“We believe the solution for the challenges ahead should come from the neighborhood,” Matt says. “These guys are the future; how do we connect and walk with them, point them to Christ, disciple them?” Not everyone comes to a saving relationship with Jesus, he adds. “But we work with everybody. We’re called to love no matter what.”

“The body of Christ should be the ones on the forefront leading the way, not just being reactionary—and for sure not being the ones throwing stones,” Matt says. “I think we should be the ones eliminating the lines and standing with people at the margins because that’s the example of Jesus. Jesus went to the margins, stood there with people, loved them, walked with them, called them to truth, called them to new life.”

Matt himself never aspired to be in ministry or to go to Moody. Growing up a pastor’s son in a small Evangelical Free church, he knew the drill—first to arrive, last to turn off the lights. “I’ve seen what it is to be a pastor. I know how hard it is.” But when his dad asked him to try Moody for one semester, he did. That first year he started dating Sarah, whose dad, Roy Haglund ’74, is a missionary pilot with MAF. She was adopted from Guatemala and knew Spanish, so she began serving at New Life in Little Village. Matt joined her. “We thought we were going to go overseas, but then we started to reach young people. And 21 years later, here we are.”

“The best part of Moody was getting out into the neighborhoods and using the city as the classroom,” Matt says. “The teaching in the classrooms was great. That gave me a solid foundation. But God’s placed us strategically in the city of Chicago for a reason—to use that training to engage with the neighborhood. Again, that’s where I met church family. That’s where I met the body of believers, that’s where I met young people. And I fell in love with ministry.” 

About the Author

  • Linda Piepenbrink

Linda Piepenbrink is managing editor of Moody Alumni & Friends and senior editor for Moody’s Marketing Communications department.