Embroiled in a bitter divorce and custody battle last August, Giovanni Zoppe wasn't in the best of spirits as he headed into court.
Then he found a sign.
Courtside Ministries volunteers come from local churches• Vineyard Church of DuPage Kingsland Center, Carol Stream
• Pathway Christian Church, Elmhurst
• Antioch Community Church, Wheaton
• St. James AME Church, Elgin
• Faith Community Church, West Chicago
Directly across from the front doors of the DuPage County courthouse, on a park bench, hung a banner asking, "Need prayer?"
"I was going to court to try to change my custody situation so I could travel with my son. So I definitely needed prayer that day," Zoppe said. "It was like God needed me to see that sign."
For the past year, the people behind that sign, the volunteers of Courtside Ministries Chicago's DuPage chapter, have gathered outside the courthouse at 505 N. County Farm Road in Wheaton to pray for and offer assistance to those coming and going.
"People from local churches come together to offer hope. We have a common belief in Jesus that motivates us to be there and give hope to people who need hope," said DuPage group leader Ken Shrock of the Vineyard Church of DuPage in Carol Stream. "We really want people to have an encounter with God."
The group offers prayers, Bibles, literature and words of encouragement in addition to helping those in need find a new church to call home.
"We don't take sides. We don't care if you're guilty or innocent or just there to support someone," Shrock said. "We will kneel before God with you and pray. We'll also listen to see if the Holy Spirit is saying anything else."
Zoppe, 47, of Aurora, thinks the Holy Spirit was talking to him on that particular August day.
"It is only with assistance from Christ that I got custody of my child to take him with me to Colorado," Zoppe said. "After praying with Ken, I walked into court and the judge said, 'Your boy is going with you. Take him to Colorado with you.'"
Weather permitting, ministers pray from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. every Tuesday and Wednesday outside the DuPage courthouse. They also minister at Cook County court buildings in Maywood and Markham, 26th Street and California Avenue and the Daley Center in Chicago, and the Will County courthouse in Joliet.
"For a lot of people, praying with us is the first time they have connected with God in a long time or maybe ever because they feel guilty, ashamed, judged, condemned, and don't even know they can talk to God," Shrock said. "Even in DuPage County there's so many people who know they need to get things right with God.
"We do our best to offer them encouragement and hook them up with churches that are going to walk with them and nurture them the rest of their journey."
Sometimes Courtside Ministries enters the picture at the end of a journey and new relationships are formed.
Amber Rose Miller, 21, of Naperville said she has always had a close relationship with God and recently turned to him for guidance. She was returning home after a brief stint in Colorado, where she learned to ski, and was trying to decide what to do with her life when she met Shrock.
"I was finishing up some court business for a DUI I received and I was with my mom, who is not one to pass up a good prayer," Miller said. "Ken asked if he could pray for me and, when he was done, he had a vision of me skiing and needing help. That blew my mind."
Since that meeting, Miller has not had to return to court, she's decided to stay in the area with her family, and she's applying to colleges to pursue environmental studies. And when her work schedule allows, she joins Shrock on Sundays at the Vineyard Church of DuPage.
"Things have come together quite well, if I do say so myself," Miller said. "And it's no doubt that meeting Ken and praying with him was the perfect first step I needed as I headed in my new direction."
Noel Sterett, an attorney at Mauck and Baker in Chicago and founding member of Courtside Ministries Chicago, called the organization's appearance outside local courthouses "critical."
"Law is a very heavy thing and there are people with no familiarity of the law, feeling the weight of the law," Sterett said. "People need help dealing with the weight of the law while also on a spiritual level handling the weight of God's law."