ALBANY PARK — Like most people who've planned an outdoor event for Halloween, Joshua Sherif is keeping an eye on the skies.
"I'm a praying man," said Sherif, one of the organizers behind Thursday night's Albany Park's Fall Fest. "So, I've been praying."
The pastor of Albany Park's New Life Community Church, Sherif is prepared to bring everything but the petting zoo indoors on short notice.
"We're measuring the bouncy house. It'll either go downstairs or in the sanctuary," said Sherif, conjuring up an image that could rival the little boy clutching Pope Francis for cutest religious moment of the week.
The Fall Fest, free and open to all, not just church members, is one of the more ambitious community outreach efforts mounted by New Life, which established its Albany Park congregation in October of 2012.
Sherif and his wife Gina, who grew up in Springfield, married the following month.
"Everything's really coming at me fast," he said. "I couldn't do what I do without her."
A nondenominational Christian church, New Life was founded in 1986 and now has 19 congregations spread across Chicago.
"Instead of being a centrally located megachurch," New Life took the approach of "could we make an impact in a community by being in the community," Sherif said.
In his first year as pastor, Sherif has seen his flock grow from the 27 core members who attended his first service to an average of 100 most Sundays.
The vast majority live within walking distance of the church's home at 3542 W. Sunnyside Ave., which New Life shares with Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church.
"Our demographic is very much young families," Sherif said. The congregation is also extremely diverse ethnically and culturally — from French speakers to families from Latvia — which speaks to the pastor's own background.
Born in Egypt, Sherif immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was in the second grade. They settled in California where Sherif, who was raised Muslim, began to explore an interest in Christianity and eventually converted.
"For me, my faith was something I chose," he said. "That's what was attractive about Jesus — he lets you choose."
Now 26, Sherif moved to Illinois for college, attending Lincoln Christian University.
Since moving to Albany Park, he's spent much of his time listening and volunteering in order to get a sense of the community's needs.
"I want this place to be a hub. If you need something, this can be a place that can connect you to some kind of help," Sherif said. "The reality of the city is that most people moving into the city are moving away from their family. We need to be family for each other."
Many of the programs he hopes to put in place involve caring for neighborhood children.
A Vacation Bible School this summer drew 80 kids who were wowed by simple science experiments like bubble making.
Mentoring programs are in the works for middle school and high school students, including a Big Brothers/Big Sisters kind of program that will pair adults with fifth- through eighth-graders.
"Think about Roosevelt High School and you have 100 mentored kids," said Sherif. "That's going to change what the school looks like."
Though New Life's mission is to develop what Sherif refers to as "fruitful followers of Jesus," it's impossible to serve a community spiritually without also caring for them physically and emotionally, he said.
"If God is who he is, he has an answer for all of that," said Sherif.
But maybe not the weather.
Rain or shine, New Life's Fall Fest is set for 5:30-8:30 p.m. Activities include pony rides, pumpkin decorating, cookie decorating and raffles. Starbucks is providing coffee and there will be popcorn, candy and cotton candy.