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The Church Lady Is Here

Moody alumna brings prayer and God’s peace to the hardest-to-reach people in Chicago
  • Linda Piepenbrink
  • April 8, 2024

Moody Bible Institute graduate brings prayer and God’s peace to the hardest-to-reach people in Chicago


Ruth (last name withheld) ’10 sat in a church on Chicago’s West Side for the funeral of a young gang member, remembering how she met him at the Cabrini-Green housing development in Chicago.

Ruth knew just about everyone at the funeral, including all the Near North kids she brought to church with her on Sundays. Most of the attendees were in gang colors—the Gangster Disciples, the Vice Lords, or spin-offs like the Mickey Cobras. “I looked around and I’m like, wow, I’m really deep into the gang,” says Ruth, one of the only white people in attendance. “It made me wonder how I got there and what God’s doing.”

‘God, break my heart for what breaks Yours’

Ruth first stepped into urban ministry as an elementary education major at Moody Bible Institute in 2006. She’d already taught at a Christian school in Arkansas but needed more training.

“I always thought Moody would be an amazing school to go to—in downtown Chicago with quality education and focused on missions and on God,” says Ruth. “Those were things that were very important to me.”

She wasn’t disappointed. Her Moody education not only influenced her work as a teacher in Chicago but would expand her outreach to gangs, migrants, and even Muslims in North Africa.

It all started in chapel one day when she prayed, “God, break my heart for what breaks Yours.”

Her heart soon broke for the kids in nearby Cabrini-Green, the low-income apartments west of Moody’s campus. Frequently in the news for incidents of drugs, crime, and violence, the high-rise buildings were pawns in a long political struggle for affordable housing.

An unexpected ministry arises

Wanting to offer the hope and peace of Jesus, Ruth joined Big Brothers Big Sisters, a mentoring group. She became a big sister to Antanadria, a seven-year-old girl living in one of the Cabrini high-rises.

As Ruth entered the building to meet Antanadria, a lookout person yelled “Moody Bible!”

“I would see everybody scrambling to put their drugs and drug money away,” she says. This became a recurring theme.

At first Antanadria expected Ruth to buy her expensive shoes and gifts, but Ruth said, “I’m here to spend time with you, to invest in you.” She helped Antanadria with her reading, then took her to the library, zoo, and a Big Brothers Big Sisters summer camp.

A neighbor named Hattie noticed her work and said, “Why don’t you take my granddaughter, Iris, to church?” Ruth began picking up Iris and other kids for her Sunday school class and church services. Soon adults and guardians would yell, “The church lady is here!” And the label stuck.

Toddler Time. Ruth plays with Venezuelan migrant’s child at weekly Bible study dinner at Park Community Church, Near North, Chicago.


Moody Bible Institute graduate Ruth Gossell

Toddler Time. Ruth plays with Venezuelan migrant’s child and interacts at weekly Bible study dinner at Park Community Church, Near North, Chicago.

In between services, Ruth would hang out with the kids, sometimes at the park, sometimes at Hattie’s or her own apartment. Eventually, Iris was baptized, and Hattie became active in church herself, inviting other family members too.

Ramona, a police officer, remembers seeing Ruth in Cabrini’s Black community. “I was like, Who’s that little white girl in the neighborhood?” Ramona recalls with a laugh. “She would literally have the kids by the hand walking them around, and she’d be welcomed by the people.”

The last high rise closed a few months after Ruth graduated from Moody. More than 3,500 families had to find housing elsewhere, with many moving to Chicago’s South and West Sides. Most youth programs left the area too, and though some residents eventually returned to mixed income housing, the once sprawling community was reduced to the original Cabrini row houses—the ones nearest the Moody campus.

Praying for hundreds

After graduating, Ruth stayed active in Big Brothers Big Sisters while also teaching at Daystar Academy. In 2012 she could no longer afford the rent on the Near North Side, so she moved farther north to the Uptown neighborhood. Frustrated, she said, “God, I thought you wanted me here so I could pour into these kids. What am I going to do with all my time commuting?”

Ruth sensed God saying, That’s how you can pray for them. Ruth realized God could do more in

their lives through her prayers for them. So she used her half-hour train commute to pray through a list of names on her phone—a list now in the hundreds.

“It’s amazing how praying for them does keep them at the front of my mind,” she says.

Life with the gangs

Ruth is on the Near North Unity Program advisory board with longtime Alderman Walter Burnett Jr., who teases Ruth by calling her Mama GD (an honorary Gangster Disciple). “She knows everybody in the neighborhood. Always volunteering,” he says. “So all the gangs in the neighborhood embrace her. She gets respect from the gangs.”

How does she earn their respect? “Just by being nice to them, showing love,” says Burnett, who grew up in Cabrini-Green. “So Ruth can walk through anything. They won’t let nobody bother her, and they listen to her.”

While walking through the row houses, Ruth ran into Little Mike, a 25-year-old who smiled broadly when he saw her. “I’m trying to help my sister move to the West Side,” he said. Little Mike lost one of his twin sisters to gun violence a few years ago. He knows Ruth from going to Big Brothers Big Sisters and accompanying her to church when he was a small boy.

“She’s spiritual and gives nice advice,” he says. And the best advice he’s gotten from Ruth? “Come to church and believe in God.”

Later Ruth stands on a corner by the row houses and smiles. “I’ve been very happy and content with just pouring into ministry with the kids. I love kids and I feel like those are kids God’s given me. That’s why I do call them my Cabrini kids.”

Open doors in North Africa

Ruth took a brief trip to North Africa through her church, teaching conversational English to a class of 20 young people. Sensing a call to a long-term ministry, she sold everything, quit her job at Daystar, and raised support through One Collective, her mission organization.

When she moved to North Africa in 2019, Ruth spent two years learning Arabic and teaching English. But she unexpectedly suffered from severe allergies to African herbs, especially mint—served as tea in every household and sold in every market.

Meanwhile, some of the Chicago gang leaders were calling her: “Hey, we miss you around here. Did you forget about us?” During those two years, five gang members that she knew were killed.

She messaged one of the gang leaders and said that if she came back, she wanted the killing to stop. Would he be willing to talk to the other guys and help create the peace that was needed in the Cabrini area? “He said yes, he was willing,” Ruth says.

In October 2022 Ruth moved back to Chicago, though she keeps her North African relationships by coordinating teaching trips three times a year. “I’m the host and also the team leader,” she says, preparing to take two women from Park Community Church in Lincoln Park with her on the next trip. “I’m organizing on both ends—housing, traveling logistics, curriculum. I create curriculum for it with lesson plans, the framework, and scope and sequence.

“God has opened up a lot of opportunities for us to share truth and share about what we believe and about Jesus.”

Ruth helps migrants fill out forms to get Chicago IDs.


Ruth with J. R. Fleming, a Cabrini resident.

A Friendly Face. Left, Ruth helps migrants fill out forms to get Chicago IDs. Right, Ruth with J. R. Fleming, a Cabrini resident.

Back in Cabrini and serving migrants

Ruth found a studio apartment on the Near North Side—$300 more per month than her budget allows, so she’s still raising the support needed for full-time ministry.

When thousands of Venezuelan asylum seekers were bussed to Chicago, Ruth added another layer to her life, volunteering to help those who were assigned temporary shelter in the police station. She helped register children for school and even had an eighth-grade Venezuelan girl stay with her at her house for a few weeks, using Google Translate to communicate. Ruth regularly recruits Moody students to help.

“Living overseas for two years has helped me have compassion and understanding for those who have newly arrived in America,” she says.

Ruth also continues her work with the gangs, including advocating for them in court hearings and to public defenders. To build unity, she invites residents to church-sponsored cookouts. She planned a balloon release and painting party to remember the life of a teenager named Antonio who died by violence. “I wanted to provide a space for grieving other than just drinking and getting high, which is the normal way a lot of people grieve in Cabrini,” she says.

The past year was more peaceful. “Police statistics of shootings and killings have gone down,” she says. Nevertheless, police activity has been more aggressive this year, she notes. One of the kids she used to bring to church was arrested when police saw him running, “but he was running to catch a bus for work,” she says.

Read your Bible, pray every day

Recently Ruth was messaging back and forth with an incarcerated gang member who had gone to church with her as a child. She sent him a verse she’d read that morning, Psalm 10:17–18: “O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed.”

“He was like, ‘Oh, I was just reading that verse today!’”

Ruth points out that many of the Cabrini kids grew up in mentoring programs—Grip, Slam, By the Hand Club for Kids, Sunshine Gospel Ministries, Big Brothers Big Sisters. “They’ve been exposed to the gospel and know the gospel. Many have even said the ‘sinner’s prayer,’ so honestly, I just have them read the Bible and pray,” she says.

“It’s my hope for them to have a personal relationship with God, with Jesus, and to rely on Jesus’ strength in the midst of struggles, in the midst of pain, instead of relying on their own strength or on substances that numb the pain—to rely on God instead, to spend time every day reading their Bible and praying.”

About the Author

  • Linda Piepenbrink

Linda Piepenbrink is managing editor of Moody Alumni & Friends magazine and is a senior editor for Marketing Communications at Moody Bible Institute.