By Joe Conway
Roy Brown wasn’t sure what to make of the white guy in the storefront window. He seemed safe enough to watch his child, as long as other people were around. But what was he doing in Garfield Park?
Roy, a former west side Chicago gang member, was already a walking miracle. Surviving the streets is one thing, but exiting gang life rarely ends well. If you were looking for the stereotypical “urban gang member,” Roy could be your statistical example. The only thing missing was a premature date of death.
The guy on the other side of the plate glass was a local, too. He grew up one neighborhood east, in Humboldt Park. Jamie Thompson has a linebacker’s build and a sharp eye.
And he is on a mission.
Off the streets
“Roy Brown was one of the founding elders of the Four Corner Hustler gang,” said Jamie. “Roy grew up in the streets and living the wild life. He and some others in the community started the gang to protect the neighborhood, but it led them into a lot of evil things; drugs, prostitution and the like.”
Jamie’s life on the streets was universally opposite of Roy’s. The son of urban missionaries, Jamie spent his days reaching out to people with the hope of the gospel.
“I’m from Chicago,” said Jamie. “Grew up in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. My parents moved there to work with a non-profit organization that reached out to at-risk children and youth. After the Lord got a hold of my life, I thought I would just be reaching out to guys on the streets. But through the process of going to school and the Lord pulling at my heart, He helped me see that He wanted me to move in and start a church in the middle of one of the worst areas of Chicago.”
The church plant is Reborn Community Church. Jamie, his family, partners and the members, have made it a fixture for community transformation through the power of the gospel, street smarts, entrepreneurial moxie and a miracle or two.
Jamie did not know it at the time, but that morning was a decision point for Roy. As he looked from the outside in, Roy wondered if he could trust this man. The thought that Jamie might be an undercover cop crossed Roy’s mind more than once. What was Jamie doing in his neighborhood?
“For a number of years, Roy just dropped his kid off at our afterschool program. In the mornings he would see me in the church storefront praying. I always have coffee out so I can talk to people and pray. That morning Roy was going through something. He came in and we starting talking.
“Roy was watching me ever since I had moved into the neighborhood to see if I was legit. At that time, he had pulled back from the gang, after spending a lot of years in jail, but he still wasn’t living a moral life. The young guys in the gang were killing off the chiefs. Roy had to leave to protect his life. He was making a living scrapping metal.”
A morning discussion and a cup of coffee began a gospel conversation that would run a year-long course. Jamie was faithful to love Roy and pursue him with truth.
“I started loving on him—trying to help him find some work,” said Jamie. “We went through a whole year reaching out and loving on him. He went AWOL for a while, but he came back around. Through loving him and sharing the gospel, he came to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior. He left the worldliness to the side and started being a responsible father to his children again.”
Faithfulness marks Jamie’s ministry.
One act of outrageous obedience led to one of the more successful avenues of community transformation with Reborn Community Church at the center. It started with an economic collapse and an apartment building.
For areas already economically depressed, the global recession was devastating. Garfield Park was a casualty. Building foreclosures multiplied. Abandoned buildings tempted the hopeless to use them illicitly, as vehicles of prostitution and drug use.
“When the economy crashed, we saw other buildings were being foreclosed all over our neighborhood,” said Jamie. “With the crash, all these owners who had started doing renovations, these developers had gotten stuck with properties. They were being foreclosed. We were getting all these abandoned buildings increasingly growing in our community. They were being filled with crack addicts and a lot of prostitution was happening in these buildings. It was bad for our community.
“With more and more buildings being abandoned, and less people investing, there became a greater need for healthy places for people to live where they were treated well by landlords. The Lord put on my heart to buy an apartment building. There was no money. I was working long hours already. Banks had closed their purse strings.”
While not initially willing to listen, God kept the idea on Jamie’s mind.
“Myself and a business partner with the same conviction began to pray about it and the Lord burdened our hearts to go ahead and buy our first property,” said Jamie. “We weren’t really sure at the beginning what He was trying to do with it. We were just obedient. My plea to the Lord was, ‘I’ll go to one bank, and if they say yes, I will know this is You.’
“We went to the bank and they said yes. Against all odds they said they would give us a loan. We bought a building that foreclosed at $400,000 for $68,000. We started to renovate the building.”
Jamie recalls working 100-hour weeks. He led the ministry of Reborn during the day and the renovation of the apartment at night. Within a few major punch list items of completion, Jamie found himself $20,000 short. A private investor committed the funds to complete the project.
For an entrepreneur like Jamie, success—God-ordained success—naturally breeds curiosity for the next step. Multiplication of a good thing encourages people.
A for-profit company was established and became a means to support Jamie and the church. More building restorations resulted when the first investor, and then others, saw the Reborn vision begin to materialize in restored housing. The next year, 10 apartment buildings were purchased and renovated, employing a full construction crew. The business grew to 25 properties, caring for and providing safe homes for 80 families as tenants.
“We give people a healthy place to live,” said Jamie. It also provides an environment where tenants are “loved on with the gospel and treated well. That has been a way to help our community. It also helped us financially stay alive, having the business in place.”
The vision God gave Jamie for Garfield Park includes church multiplication along with community transformation. Jamie and Reborn are on the brink of launching an urban church planting center, in a former firehouse located in the heart of the neighborhood. Another result of prayer and obedience.
The newly restored firehouse will allow Reborn to host BLVD urban church planting cohorts in the spring of 2017. Reborn will take on its first church planting residents in the fall.
“We are right in the middle of the City of Chicago. Trains, expressways, and airports provide easy access to our location and to those who want to be trained in urban ministry. We believe from here we can make the greatest impact. By impacting the community, we can impact other communities in our city and others in the nation that need urban ministries intentionally reaching the lost.
“Our ministry model is to have a church and a for-profit that work together to reach, equip and empower people to fully transform the lives of people. This isn’t just about social programs. Our programs are about leading people to Christ,” said Jamie. “It’s about building a relationship that leads to trust that gives us the chance to share our faith with people and see them saved. The good thing about evangelism connected to the body is that we have the discipleship mechanism, which is this church, built right into the process. We do not have to build bridges to a church, because we work as one entity.
“We wanted to empower people. We wanted to give people a hand up, not just a hand out. We believe the story of the Good Samaritan tells us what love looks like. Love is meeting a need. We believe the greatest need is for people to be empowered, not enabled.
Love covers a multitude of sins
“Love covers a multitude of sins,” said Jamie. “Where there are walls and barriers in people’s lives, whether it is racial sins committed against people, sins of the fathers, sins of mothers, sins of bosses or people in their past, love covers it all. Initially you do not have a voice to preach the gospel to people. When we love them, love covers the sin and allows us to have an opportunity to be a voice in their lives. Love really is a platform for the gospel. We believe our acts of love—showing people by meeting a specific need, like the Good Samaritan—gives us a platform to preach the gospel.”
The “formula” brought Roy Brown, and hundreds of others, to encounter the gospel through Jamie and Reborn.
“Roy’s life has been transformed,” said Jamie. “He is raising his children under the Lord. What he used to do to try to destroy lives, now he is trying to build lives. He is working with me with the men’s ministry as the co-director. We are looking to him to take the whole thing over. He’s a guy who has all this leadership potential, he just needed the foundation to be right, and a relationship with Christ.
“Now instead of ruining lives he is building lives with the gospel. Last year Roy got engaged to the mother of his children. Now we’re moving down that path with him, too.”
As you would expect, Jamie has other ideas for ministry. He is rarely still, in either physical movement or thought. Wouldn’t it be a great business opportunity to provide an economic engine through business that supports a bi-vocational church planter?
“We believe we have a model here that could be reproducible,” said Jamie. “I don’t think you can exactly reproduce something. You can’t pigeon-hole people into one idea, but for inner-city areas, especially broken, inner-city areas, I think what we are doing is a great way to do urban ministry.
“We are excited about what the Lord is doing here. He seems to be burdening people with the desire to come to cities. We believe we can help them do it well. We aren’t trying to build our own thing. We want to work with the North American Mission Board and others to make it happen. If we collaborate together, together we can do it.”
Roy Brown’s neighborhood on the Westside of Chicago has a bad reputation. And Roy used to have something to do with that. On the streets in Garfield Park, Roy learned how to be a burglar, gang-banger and a drug dealer. But now, he studies His Bible almost every day with Jamie Thompson, Roy’s pastor and friend.
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