Chicago's 'Reborn' church transforms inner-city lives

CHICAGO (BP) -- Roy Brown wasn't sure what to make of the white guy in the storefront window one morning, wondering what he was doing in Garfield Park.

Brown, a former west side Chicago gang member, was already a walking miracle. Surviving the streets is one thing, but exiting gang life often entails a premature date of death.

Jamie Thompson, the guy on the other side of the plate glass, also is a local with a linebacker's build who grew up one neighborhood east in Humboldt Park. And he is on a mission.

Brown, one of the founders of the Four Corner Hustler gang, "grew up in the streets and living the wild life," Thompson said. "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."

Thompson's life on the streets was much the opposite of Brown's. The son of urban missionaries, he spent his days reaching out to people with the hope of the Gospel.

"My parents moved [to Humboldt Park] to work with a nonprofit organization that reached out to at-risk children and youth. After the Lord got ahold 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, which has become a fixture for community transformation through the power of the Gospel, street smarts, entrepreneurial moxie and a miracle or two. Like Brown.

Thompson did not know it at the time, but that morning was a decision point for Brown. As he looked from the outside in, Brown wondered if he could trust this man. The thought that Thompson might be an undercover cop crossed Brown's mind more than once.

"For a number of years, Roy just dropped his kid off at our after-school 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. Thompson was faithful to pursue Brown with truth.

"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."

Obedience amid the storm

In seeking community transformation, Reborn Community Church's labors started with the global economic collapse and an apartment building.

For areas already economically depressed like Garfield Park, the recession was devastating. Building foreclosures multiplied. Abandoned buildings tempted the hopeless to use them as vehicles of prostitution and drug use.

"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," Thompson said. "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.

"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," Thompson said. "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 … against all odds they said they would give us a loan. We bought a building that foreclosed at $400,000 for $68,000. Thompson recalls working 100-hour weeks, leading the ministry of Reborn during the day and the renovation of the building at night. Within a few major punch list items of completion, Thompson found himself $20,000 short. A private investor committed the funds to complete the project.

For an entrepreneur like Thompson, success -- God-ordained success -- naturally breeds curiosity for the next step. A for-profit company was established and became a means to support Thompson 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," Thompson said. It also provides an environment where tenants are "loved on with the Gospel and treated well. … It also helped us financially stay alive, having the business in place."

Thompson and Reborn now are in the process of launching an urban church planting center in a former firehouse located in the heart of the neighborhood. The newly restored firehouse will allow Reborn to host urban church planting cohorts as well as church planting residents.

"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," Thompson said. "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," Thompson said. "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."

In the case of Brown, Thompson said, "Roy's life has been transformed. 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. … Last year Roy got engaged to the mother of his children. Now we're moving down that path with him too."

Thompson voices excitement "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."

Joe Conway writes for the North American Mission Board. Discover more about Jamie Thompson and Reborn Community Church at RebornCommunityChurch.org.
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