GAGE PARK — A week after masked robbers stuck up a Southwest Side church during Sunday services — including putting a gun to a man's head and pointing a gun at children, parishioners said — members of the congregation turned out in force.
The doubling of attendance Sunday at Roca de Salvacion Church in Gage Park is a sign, church leaders say, that its positive presence is needed more than ever in the neighborhood.
But churchgoers still are in shock that the robbery even happened.
"We were just finishing the service, and they walked inside of a church. How could you do that?" said Leon Alberto, who was robbed during the attack. "Unbelievable. I was amazed."
The church at 2542 W. 59th St. had been in its current location for just two weeks when two men burst into a service the night of Nov. 11, pointed a gun at women and children and demanded money, co-pastors Moises Marino and David Solis said Sunday afternoon.
Numerous kids were there when a gunman — identified by prosecutors at Matthew Cargo, 19 — tried to rob the congregants, authorities said.
One woman handed over a wad of bills as she tried to shield her children from the masked man, Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Lorraine Scaduto said during Cargo's bond hearing.
Cargo turned the gun on another parent as the man slipped and fell to the floor in an attempt to get between the gunman and his kids, prosecutors said.
According to police, Cargo stole more than $300 and ran. Only one person has been charged in the holdup, athough church officials said Carge had an accomplice.
Alberto, 44, said the two men walked through the front of the church about 9:15 p.m. and pointed guns at him and the children as a woman prayed for safety behind him. The thieves put guns to his head and his stomach, forcing him to give them everything he had, he said.
Rather than risk the lives of the children who ran behind him for safety, Alberto decided not to put up a fight, he said. The scariest moment of the attack came when a father rushed to the rescue of his son after hearing his wife's screams, he said.
"He didn't know where he was running, he just went to help his kids. When you're a father, you run to see what happened to your kids," Alberto said.
The man sprinted through the front door and slipped on the freshly cleaned floor.
"He slipped and flipped, then they asked him for more money," Alberto said. "If he [didn't] flip, I think they would've shot him."
Solis said he was playing guitar near the front of the church and was unaware of what was happening at first. He later called police and attempted to shield members of his congregation in a back room of the church.
Outside the church on Sunday, Solis said the congregation forgives Cargo.
"We forgive what he did, but he has to pay the consequences of his actions," he said.
On Sunday, a church member stood watch inside during service, but the pastors said they have no plans to increase surveillance or intensify safety measures.
"We trust the police, we trust the people and we trust our neighborhood," Solis said. "We have faith, and our faith means there's good and evil. Evil is against us and [it doesn't] want us to hold strong."
But holding strong is the purpose of his church, said Mariano, adding that he doesn't regret moving the church from its former location a few blocks west.
"People don't think this [area] is a place for God," Solis said. "We have to help. We moved here because we want to help people, we want to build big families, and we want to show that we can all be together no matter what."
Cargo, of the 2000 block of South Michigan Avenue, is charged with three counts of armed robbery.
Cargo was on parole for residential burglary at the time of the robbery, prosecutors said. He was arrested Tuesday and identified by witnesses, police said.
A Cook County judge ordered him held on $500,000.
Contributing: Erin Meyer