A Gangster for Christ – Reflections

On the day we moved in 1954 into the parsonage on Chicago’s south side, I remember being taken to the Gossage Grill at 63rd and Kedzie that was owned by church deacon Cecil Gossage. I think it was George Mensik that took me that day to pick up a bag of hamburgers for our family. Maybe it was another man…because at Marquette Manor Baptist Church there were several dozen faithful men who were always ready to serve. But George Mensik, former gangster, was a key personality in that band of godly brothers who possessed an unwavering passion for lost souls, and he instantly became a strong friend of our family. George was known as our “preachin’ deacon” during my dad’s short three year ministry at Marquette.

I learned just this week from Jim McCarty, a fellow Boys Brigade club member of that era, that George Mensik frequently hung out at Gossage Grill when he was not out preaching. As I remember, George and Elsie Mensik lived just around the corner and down the block from the little lunch-counter restaurant where Cecil doled out his famous chili, delicious grilled hamburgers, and a steady dose of the gospel to customers who would line up three-deep to be fed. I know that Cecil and George were ardent witnesses for Christ who unashamedly shared their faith constantly. And I can imagine that George shared his testimony with many a patron in that shop.

Cecil Gossage and helper at the 63rd & Kedzie hamburger shop.

Gossage Grill was a gospel factory. Almost weekly Cecil was bringing a recent convert to church that he had led to the Lord; or he was shepherding some down-on-his-luck soul he was witnessing to at the time. Cecil thrived on that kind of stuff. So did George Mensik. These men would regularly go with a group of Marquette men to preach and witness at the downtown Chicago rescue missions, including the famed Pacific Garden Mission. By the time I arrived on the scene, as a 13 year old, these laymen were well established in their ministry practice, and I was challenged and inspired by them all.

When my dad was taken to heaven three years later in a plane crash it was the men of the church who really stepped up to encourage and guide me in my Christian walk. George Mensik was especially significant in that ministry of mentoring me.

If you query the archives of Newspapers.com you will find literally dozens of articles published during the 50s and 60s in small town and city newspapers that announce the preaching of George Mensik in local churches. He traveled all over holding evangelistic meetings and getting into to local prisons wherever he could. But getting into the ministry was not an easy proposition for George.

I remember him a number of times saying from the pulpit, “Most preachers get their sermons with points 1, 2 and 3, but I get my sermons like a ball of string and then I try to unravel it. Amen?” George had no formal Bible training, and no college education. He was a graduate of many jails and prisons – and the school of hard knocks. His language and Chicago accent was smothered in street lingo and colorful gangland expressions. But his compassion was glowing and apparent. He would say with a tear in his voice, “Every time they threw me in jail they would say, ‘we’re going to make you a better man.’ But praise God when he saved me he made me a new man. Amen?”

While I was still in high school I remember being in a conversation with him when he told me how difficult it was for the church members at Marquette Manor to accept him for several years after he was saved. He very honestly expressed that he could not blame them. He knew that it was a great risk for the congregation to take him into their midst knowing that past gang members and various temptations existed right there in their neighborhood that was home turf for the mob organization. He said that he realized that he had to live the life of a true Christian to be accepted and trusted.

By the time I met him he had been saved for over fifteen years and the grace of God was powerfully evident in his life. He had also developed a burden for men serving time in prison – and especially for those awaiting execution. I heard him on a number of occasions talk about prisoners who he led to saving faith in Christ and then walked with them to the electric chair. All of this led him to acquire a deep concern for the families of the inmates that he met and ministered to all over the country.

When I was in seminary George came to Minneapolis to preach, and took Connie and me to a restaurant for lunch. After eating we walked to the cash register. He opened his wallet and fanned out seven $100 bills and said to the waitress, “Do ya tink dat will cover da bill?” I said to him, “George, you shouldn’t be carrying around a big wad of money like that! Somebody could rob you.” He looked up to me from his stout and rotund body, squinted and spat out, “Let ‘em try!”

The original Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago – Known as “The Old Lighthouse”

He then went on to tell me that he had to carry lots of cash so that he could help the families of prisoners that he visited. He said, “You can’t buy groceries for needy kids out there on the road with a checkbook, or plastic. If they have a need you have to have cash.” No one but the Lord knows how many families he helped. He carried 3×5 note cards in his shirt pocket that described the stories of families of prisoners that he fed, clothed, and led to Christ. After reading a short testimony from a card, he would lift his face to the congregation and say, “That’s my paycheck! Amen?” And then he would read another, and an another, and…every time adding, “Amen, brother, amen?”

He would say with a twinkle in his eye, “Da doc told me to watch my weight,” and then he would pat his considerable girth and growl, “I do. I keep it right where I can see it.” He carried all of the swagger and confidence of his underworld background and experience. Once early in my pastoral ministry I was with him, and a number of other preachers, at a famous huge south side Chicago restaurant. As we were walking across that enormous dining room I heard the buzz of chatter from surrounding diners. They thought George was “hizzoner” Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. As they say in the south, “he did favor” the famous Mayor Daley in appearance. I think George knew exactly what was going on and gave a little wink to loyal voters.

      

George Menisk was truly a trophy of God’s grace. We don’t see many conversions like his in our day. May we pray, and ask the Lord: “Do it again, Lord. Do it again.”

George Mensik went on to become an evangelist for the famous Pacific Garden Mission, and then became the very first missionary appointed by the Baptist World Mission.

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