I Could Totally/Never Do That!

By Jennifer Johnson

Two mistakes are easy to make when reading B.J. Leonard’s story. The first is to think you could never do what he did—give up your dream house in the suburbs to move into the inner city with your wife and three young kids. The second is to believe you could totally do what he did because you’ve romanticized it as a sequel to The Blind Side.

B.J., his wife, Mary, and his daughters aren’t reaching out to urban Decatur, IL, because it’s easy, but they’re also not doing it to experience the warm fuzzy feelings of “saving” a neighborhood. They spent years praying about the idea, bidding on potential houses (and not getting them), and sharing the vision with church members who didn’t always understand. What takes minutes in a movie took months for B.J. and his family, and it confirmed both their calling to the area and the challenges they’d face there.

Volunteers have given thousands of hours to help transform the Leonards’ house in Decatur, IL. These are before-and-after (but not quite finished) images of the home’s kitchen. The Leonards live on the second floor, but the first floor is “open” space for the community and whatever ministry God wants to do through the Leonard family.
Volunteers have given thousands of hours to help transform the Leonards’ house in Decatur, IL. These are before-and-after (but not quite finished) images of the home’s kitchen. The Leonards live on the second floor, but the first floor is “open” space for the community and whatever ministry God wants to do through the Leonard family.

“People have called us heroes and said we’re so brave for taking this on,” B.J. told me. “But we’re just being obedient. God has called us here, without any guarantees for how it will turn out.”

The day we talked, a little girl from the neighborhood knocked on B.J.’s front door and asked to pick peaches in the orchard behind the house. They’d selected some together, and then he invited her to stay for a sandwich lunch.

The Leonards didn’t lead a Bible study during the meal or lead her to Christ during dessert. She may or may not come back. She may or may not come to know Jesus. She may or may not make good choices as she grows up. It was just lunch—a meal that, actually, Mary Leonard may or may not have been in the mood to share that particular day. But it was, as B.J. says, obedience for that day.

Matt and I have tossed around the idea of doing some kind of urban work someday. In a few years his kids will be grown-ish and we’ll still be young-ish. We won’t have to worry about living in the “right” school district or keeping set hours, and perhaps it will make sense for us to use our gifts in that context. But neither of us is naïve enough to think we know what stresses that work would require, or to believe it would be a montage (underscored by soaring violin music) of fulfilling days, heart-to-heart conversations, and triumphant moments for Jesus.

Some people think a life like the Leonard family’s would be more “Christian” or more fulfilling than any other life. Others believe it would be almost impossibly difficult. The truth, I think, is somewhere in the middle: rewarding yet taxing, frustrating and fulfilling, hard but happy. In other words, obedience to this call comes with the same mixture of ups and downs that accompany any time we obey Christ’s call and imitate Christ’s example. None of it is the stuff of flashy movie moments; all of it is simply faithful ministry.

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