Pastor Al Toledo, co-lead pastor of Chicago Tabernacle, is this year’s keynote speaker for the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Service of Celebration at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Under the Toledos’ leadership, Chicago Tabernacle serves between 1700-1800 worshippers weekly.
I wanted to talk with Pastor Toledo to discuss the Chicago-based ministry that he co-pastor’s with his wife Chrissy, his heart for youth ministry, and what we must remember about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy in 2020.
Smile Politely: Thank you for your willingness to talk with me about your upcoming visit to Champaign. I did have a chance to spend some time on your website and get a feel for some of your ongoing ministry efforts and the history of your congregation. How would you describe Chicago Tabernacle?
Al Toledo: Our church community is a remarkable mix of people from all walks of life. Even though we are embedded in a particular community, we have people from the north, south and west sides of the city and suburbs. It is a mixed church, socio-economically and racially. We have people from all walks of life and it’s beautiful. If you come to our church, you will probably get hugged four or five times while you are there. It is a community really marked by love. And that’s really really cool.
You know, for my wife and I, the ministry is really hard, but a ministry like this is a dream come true. From the very beginning, when we started the church, we always prayed, “Lord, the minute the people walk in the door, let them feel the love of God.” And I believe, he has really answered that prayer. With the unique friendships and connections we have been blessed with, this ministry is a very special thing to experience. We are marked by love and we are really committed to the Bible. We believe that the truth is what sets people free and that the word of God is the Truth. We have also had many miracles at this church.
People come to us from profound brokenness…but brokenness that comes from both ends of the spectrum. There is a brokenness that comes from poverty and addiction and hardship. Then, there is another kind of brokenness that comes from affluence.
SP: Hmmmm. OK.
Toledo: There is emotional brokenness and emptiness that can come from affluence where people give themselves to the idols of this world and they wake up empty. So, I know that Jesus is the only one who can really fill our cup.
SP: And the challenge of affluence, the brokenness of affluence is something you don’t hear anyone address. I know your congregation is on a 21-day-fast. What other kinds of issues is Chicago Tabernacle concerned about or praying about?
Toledo: Well, for sure, where we are, our neighborhood is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city. And we are considered an under-served area. We have all of the challenges you can imagine. We many not be a leader in incidents of violent crime across the city, but we have had shots fired in front of the church and shots fired behind the church.
SP: Sure. I get it.
Toledo: There are a lot of isolated families in our community. And by “isolated”, I mean a single parent families where, if the parent loses their job or something happens, they don’t have support systems or structures around them to help them and they could lose their children to the foster care system.
Toledo: Our biggest prayer is because we are in a major building project to build what we call a “Becoming Center” where kids can glorify the church and say “That’s God’s house, but that’s my house, too.” They can go inside and do their homework, play sports, hang out with their friends and just have a real space and place to grow and develop in a holistic way.
We believe that when someone has a true meeting with God that the impact is holistic: it’s spiritual, but it spills over. God’s impact spills over into their minds, their bodies, their choices, their families. And I believe that God is involved in every aspect of the development of every child, every teenager, and their families. We are deeply connected to all of our local schools and we do all sorts of outreach to the community. One of the biggest things we do in the summer is called “KWA” or Kids Week of Adventures.
I grew up in the ‘hood in Brooklyn; my old neighborhood in Brooklyn is super-bougie now. But when I went into ministry I had a deep desire to see God break through in the hardest places. And I believe one of the key ways is by providing space for the kids to grow. So we got a vision. A lot of the kids in our neighborhood may never go to Disney World, so we got the vision to bring Disney to them. It is probably the biggest project of our church. All year long we work on it and put together a “spiritual Disney World”. It’s like day camp, but it’s not during the day. It is at night. The kids come in and play games. They get snacks. We put on a huge drama. And we transform our entire building for KWA.
We are focused on the kids. It’s really REALLY powerful time and the kids get to experience the deep love of God from the people of God. I don’t think I need to tell anyone that Chicago is a city in crisis. We need a breakthrough. For me, I believe that the key is the church. I feel like the church needs to rise up and open their arms and wrap their arms around our communities. If we bring the love of Jesus, then all things are possible.
SP: If you include that in your remarks, you will set this community on fire!
SP: No, but I say that because we have been struggling with a gun violence problem across Central Illinois. Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, Danville, Springfield; across Central Illinois our cities have been struggling with this issue.
SP: So, this call for the church to engage our youth is a timely reminder for this part of the state.
Toledo: Amen. Amen. The toughest, hardest kids come into the church and they can be very difficult for sure because they are fractured inside in many cases. They feel let down and heart-broken, injured. But man, you start to love on them and you watch all that toughness melt away. Love and truth are power combination. And I do believe that the church is the answer. Although we need strong legislation, you can’t legislate the human heart. The Holy Spirit, God, is what is able to transform the human heart.
SP: We RARELY talk about spirit of brokenness that grips some in our communities as a spiritual matter. We don’t admit fact that your some of our young people — not the shooters, but others — are frustrated because adults and leaders in their lives cannot or will not protect them.
SP: So, there is often a breach of trust and brokenness in that.
Toledo: That’s right and we have to restore that trust. But it takes relationships. I have a project called DNA Of A Leader and part of what I argue is that the fundamental principle is this: it is the call of God is that we be privately healthy first before we can be publically fruitful, second. That’s God’s way.
But part of our problem is that our culture focuses on being publically successful, but privately unhealthy. And that is why we perpetuate so much brokenness. Look around our society and we see captains of industry in EVERY arena in the last four years have fallen. We have to focus on the heart and what it means to privately healthy.
And if we teach our kids to be privately healthy which flows from a relationship with God and has to be experienced by the love of God and the truth of God, we can break this cycle.
SP: This question flows out of many threads of this conversation, particularly on the subjects of leadership and love. Is there anything in particular about Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy or his preaching that informs your own work and ministry?
Toledo: I don’t consider myself an expert on the Civil Rights Movement by any means, but I have read Dr. King’s biography and a bunch of his sermons and speeches.
And you know, both my parents are Cuban. My dad looks white and my mom looks black. So I grew up in a world where there was racial strife. I played baseball. I went to tournaments. I’ve heard all kinds of crazy things. Yet, as I became a man and felt called to the ministry, Dr. King became one of my heroes. Dr. King is one of the best examples of someone who heard the call of God, answered the call and committed his gifts and call to do something for the glory of God. He is the most beautiful modern day example of commitment to calling that anyone could look at.
He was a man of God and stuck to the Lord’s plan of love. The nation was divided. The “land of the free” divided by racism. Shameful. The church didn’t stand by him. Much of the church was absent for his efforts. There is so much opposition to him, but he stuck to love and love won out. He was a very special man and I am very inspired by that.
For more information on Pastor Toledo’s keynote address and other Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 2020 Celebration events, check out the calendar here.
Top image: A head shot of Pastor Toledo. He has gray hair and glasses, and he’s wearing a blue blazer with a white t-shirt. He’s leaning against a brick wall. Photo provided by Pastor Al Toledo.