Church leader known for anti-gay remarks to expand ministry to Rogers Park

Wilfredo De Jesus, Photo: Steven Vance

An offshoot of the church led by Wilfredo de Jesús, a Pentecostal pastor whose past anti-gay remarks led to controversy during his run for mayor last year, will open in Rogers Park this April.

New Life Covenant North will hold its first service Easter Sunday, April 8, in the Stephen Gale Community Academy Auditorium at 1631 W. Jonquil Terrace.

The new church’s senior pastor Robert Rand said he does not foresee any tension with the large LGBT community in Rogers Park. Rand said his focus will be “loving on” the community to mend things like drug addiction, gang involvement and homelessness.

“My primary focus is not to try to ridicule or taunt or point fingers at the LGBT community,” Rand said.

When asked about De Jesús’s past remarks, Rand said they share the view that homosexuality is a sin.

“I’m an ordained pastor through the Assemblies of God,” Rand said. “Pastor De Jesús is an ordained pastor through the Assemblies of God. Do we believe homosexuality is a sin? Yes, I do. Does that mean I don’t love my brothers and sisters in the LGBT community? No, it does not mean that. What I believe is my religion and my religious belief.”

The Assemblies of God, a group of Pentecostal churches, teach that homosexuality is a sin as the Bible was divinely inspired by God and is therefore infallible. The church also believes that speaking in tongues is the physical evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Whether or not New Life Covenant North actively espouses the anti-gay views of De Jesús, LGBT Rogers Park residents may keep their distance.

Arlie Sims, a gay Rogers Park resident and former seminary student and lay pastor at Broadway Methodist Church, said he would advise neighbors to be wary of the church, given its teachings on homosexuality. But, on a personal level, Sims said New Life’s opening will be irrelevant.

“For me personally, it has absolutely no relevance to my life,” he said. “It’s just so far removed from what my sense of Christianity is about. As a middle-aged, middle-class, white gay man in Rogers Park, I don’t feel threatened by it.”

Rand said his main goal for ministry is to prevent gang violence and said he welcomes the LGBT community or anyone’s help.

“My focus is to bring a holistic gospel to Rogers Park, hopefully to see change in the lives of people that have been broken through drug addiction or whatever vices that are holding them back,” Rand said. “If the LGBT community wants to hold hands and reach out to the drug addicts, the prostitutes, the homeless, my hand is open to hold.”

Whether the LGBT community will take up that invitation depends on whether New Life Covenant North actively espouses its anti-gay theology, Chicago Theological Seminary’s academic dean and professor Ken Stone, who is openly gay, said.

“In principle there’s no reason that the LGBT community couldn’t work with people who are antigay to accomplish those ends,” Stone said. “In practice, I could imagine a gay or lesbian person wanting to combat homelessness would think, ‘Why don’t I put my effort into a congregation that is supportive of LBGT people?’ There may not be many people who, in practice, would be able to work through those conditions.”

Other churches in Rogers Park, many of them mainline protestant denominations, are open and affirming of LGBT people.

Rev. Deborah Paton said Rogers Park Presbyterian Church welcomes all members of the community, including LGBT individuals, to come as they are to worship. She said any effort by another church to exclude or convert the Rogers Park LGBT community would cause other area churches to magnify their embrace in response.

“There are quite a few places where gays, lesbians and transgender folk in Rogers Park can find a home, find a faith community and use their time and talents,” Paton said. “There are communities that are open and affirming and there are those that are not. The hope is that in Rogers Park there are enough of the open and affirming communities that people will feel safe and encouraged here.”

De Jesús did not return calls for comment.

In the past De Jesús has used his New Life Covenant Church in Humboldt Park, one of the largest Assemblies of God congregations, as a political launching pad, most notably his 2011 mayoral run and his attempt to be picked as 26th Ward Ald. Billy Ocasio’s replacement in the summer of 2009.

Then Mayor Richard Daley rejected De Jesús as Ocasio’s replacement. LGBT rights activists had protested De Jesús’s efforts to derail the planned high school for LGBT students. He lead a group of clergy in 2008 that opposed the project.

In 2008, De Jesús was quoted in Christianity Today as saying that “opposing abortion and homosexuality have been the paramount moral issues for him.”