On a Sunday afternoon at the South Asian Friendship Center, the sounds of a drum, tambourines, and handheld shakers ring out as several Moody students sit on the carpeted floor singing Hindi/Urdu worship songs with Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh women. One of the Muslims is a seeker, eager to “learn about the Jesus from the Bible, not the Jesus from the Quran.”
Then a believer gives her salvation testimony and hands out small candles, lighting each one from a larger candle that represents Jesus Christ, the light of the world. With the overhead lights turned off, everyone raises their candle. It’s the day before Dawali, a Hindu festival of light over darkness—and seeing Jesus as the Light that shines over darkness is a powerful symbol.
“I think the candles are a great contextualization tool,” says Hannah, a senior linguistics major at Moody. She attended the weekly bilingual devotional service in English and Hindi/Urdu with hopes of learning to serve cross-culturally and share Jesus using a nonthreatening approach. There she met Sunita Rodricks—Aunty Sunita—who grew up in India and mentors Moody students like Hannah to tell stories from the Bible in ways South Asians can understand.
“I am very excited about training these beautiful young women so that it may be duplicated wherever they go,” Sunita says.
25 years of doing God’s work
This year the South Asian Friendship Center is celebrating 25 years of God’s faithfulness in ministry. In that time the Lord has enabled a multiethnic, multigenerational team to reach South Asians in Chicago’s Little India neighborhood. Moody faculty and students have been involved from the very beginning.
Dr. Timothy Sisk, dean of faculty and professor of Intercultural Studies at Moody, has been sending students to serve at the South Asian Friendship Center for many years. “We realized that there were thousands of Muslims and Hindus right here in the Chicagoland area that needed to hear the gospel, and South Asian Friendship Center was doing that in a sensitive, contextualized way.”
Hundreds of students from Moody Bible Institute have completed their Practical Christian Ministries (PCM) assignments through SAFC—teaching English as a second language, tutoring children in the homework center, doing men’s street evangelism, and reaching out to sexually trafficked women in Chicago.
Emily, a senior, tutors students at SAFC and visits with their parents during her PCM on Thursday afternoons. “I came to Moody because of PCMs,” she says. “I just love the idea of meeting tangible needs of the community. I wanted to do ministry, and the fact that it’s required by Moody—they hold me to that commitment, and I really love that.”
From Chicago to South Asia
As they learn to be effective witnesses in reaching their neighbors, some Moody alumni have gone on to serve in South Asian countries.
Ten years ago, Ellie (Kitchen) Childs, a 2013 Moody Bible Institute graduate, volunteered in the after-school program tutoring kids. “That was my first taste of South Asian culture and norms,” says Ellie, who also helped out with a block party SAFC held in the summer.
She and her husband, Ben Childs, who earned an MDiv from Moody Theological Seminary in 2011, have four children and spent the last three years learning Urdu and serving as educators in Pakistan. “I feel very indebted to the South Asian Friendship Center for the opportunity to get ministry experience and to make friends with South Asians,” Ellie says.
Jeremy Anderson, a 2005 Moody Bible Institute graduate, moved into the neighborhood and began working with SAFC in 2001 as a Moody student. He especially remembers the all-night cricket matches held between Pakistanis and Indians. Besides the opportunity to build relationships, when the game was over and the sun started coming up, they handed out The Jesus Film in Telegu or Urdu and other languages.
“It’s just an incredible memory,” he says.
Fast forward to 2011. Jeremy was living in Bangladesh when the World Cup of Cricket was hosted there, in India, and in Sri Lanka.
Remembering the impact of the cricket matches at SAFC, Jeremy ran a cable from the TV down the wall of the four-story building where he lived and connected it to a projector. Inviting the whole community to watch, he projected every game that included a South Asian team, attracting many people and building relationships.
“That was because of the impact I saw at the South Asian Friendship Center,” he says. “God’s kingdom advanced through that.”
Disha Moreau, a 2009 Moody Bible Institute graduate, was born in India and met her husband, Bob, at the South Asian Friendship Center, where he led Urdu and Hindi worship songs at Sunday evening services. While studying at Moody, Disha supervised the homework center, which included introducing a Bible verse at the start of the week that students were encouraged to memorize and recite on Fridays.
“I remember a teenage Muslim girl who loved coming to the Center,” Disha says. “I was so blessed to see this girl covered from head to toe in her black burqa reciting Bible verses.”
Disha, who still serves in Little India, prays that through SAFC more people will be exposed to Christian community and hear the gospel. “God’s Word does not return void, and at the right time it will bear fruit,” she says.
Seated by Sunita at the South Asian Friendship Center, Moriah Chambers, a 2022 Moody Bible Institute graduate, teaches a Bible story at a bilingual service.
Aunty Sunita, a former Hindu, directs a PCM to sexually trafficked women called Asha (“hope” in Hindi). She coaches several Moody students to take time each week to pray for and visit trafficked women in massage parlors in Chicago. While some encounters are very brief, recently a Latina lady opened the door for two students, allowing them to visit in the lobby. The students pulled small gifts and snacks from their purses and offered to pray for the women. One of the students even sold clothes in her dorm to raise money for beauty products and gifts for the women.
How the dream was realized
Dr. Samuel Naaman, professor of Intercultural Studies at Moody Bible Institute and president of the South Asian Friendship Center, first dreamed of opening a center to serve South Asians when he came to do doctoral work in the United States in 1992. He was fascinated by the bustling mile-and-a-half-long strip of shops, restaurants, mosques, and temples on Devon Avenue.
Once primarily Jewish, the neighborhood became known as Little India as a growing influx of immigrants arrived from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Afghanistan—“such a great opportunity to reach Muslims and Hindus,” Naaman says.
Naaman grew up in Pakistan with parents who left Islam to become Christian evangelists. In 1990 Muslim extremists shot and killed his only brother in front of his dad’s church. “That was a major trauma for our family,” he says.
In 1993 Naaman served as a summer intern with the Christian and Missionary Alliance and began to pray with a core group of Pakistani expats and local Chicagoans. “I had a deep desire to reach Asians and Muslims, especially after the martyrdom of my brother,” he says.
After three years of searching for a place to minister to South Asians, their prayers were answered in the form of a bookstore near Devon Avenue. “When we opened in 1997, it was the first center of its kind in the whole of North America,” says Naaman, who has served at Moody since 2001.
The South Asian Friendship Center included a bookstore, copy and fax center, immigration and English as a Second Language (ESL) translation help, and other services. People from Little India and West Rogers Park would come in for literature, free Wi-Fi, copy services, English training, and conversation. Free chai was always available as The Jesus Film played in the background in Urdu or another language.
“The bookstore gave us the platform to connect with the business community,” says Naaman. “People had access to the gospel through literature and DVDs, and we always reminded the Moody students serving with us not to shy away from preaching and praying.”
A home for hospitality
The bookstore model was ideal for two decades. Then five years ago, in 2017, after much prayer, SAFC made a paradigm shift, closing the bookstore and moving less than a mile south to a ministry house where hospitality is the main focus. Their partners at Call of Hope, a ministry that reaches Muslim communities, purchased the 100-year-old three-story bungalow, which is discreetly located on a quiet, tree-lined residential street at 6017 North Maplewood Avenue.
Shaun Singh, who graduated with an MDiv from Moody Theological Seminary in 2022, is SAFC’s new associate director, and his wife, Serenity, runs the homework center. They live at the home with their two young children: son Paul and infant daughter Stuti (Sanskrit for “praise”).
The home offers weekly bilingual services, a daily homework center, ESL training, Bible studies, summer parties and soccer camps in a park, and hot chai and hospitality. Moody students arrive for their PCM assignments by way of a back gate that leads them down steps to a warm, finished basement where relationships are forged. A few weeks ago, the PCM students went to a nearby park to invite people to come learn English.
Optimistic about the future
Singh is working with Dan Sommer, director of Apex youth missions sponsored by the Evangelical Free Church. Next summer, Apex will bring several short-term missions teams to run soccer camps and learn to evangelize Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs.
Singh is optimistic about the future. “I think God is definitely opening doors and opening ways to do ministry more creatively—more in a way that works with other organizations and unites us together to do ministry in the Little India neighborhood,” he says.
“SAFC from the beginning has always been a training ground for many,” he adds. “We’ve trained many, sent out many to do ministries in South Asian cultures, and we want to continue doing that for God’s glory.”