By Jennifer Johnson
“A number of churches were moving to the suburbs, but we made a commitment to stay,” B.J. Leonard says.
First Christian Church in Decatur, IL, has seen lots of change during its 180 years in the city. However, over the last 15 years some of the area’s bigger manufacturing and industrial companies have shut down and left, the unemployment rate soared, and people began to move. The congregation had to wrestle with its future.
“We sensed God was leading us to reach outside our building and try to make a difference where we are,” says Leonard, missions pastor at First Christian. “Around the same time, the local school superintendent started a program called One Church, One School, pairing churches with schools to address issues in our community. We began working with a local elementary school and created programs like an annual party in the park for neighborhood kids and an after-school program called Club 305.”
While these programs were successful, Leonard began to explore how the church could actually be part of the neighborhood where many of these kids live. First Christian eventually “adopted” a six-block area in a “pretty rough neighborhood,” he says. “It’s the second-worst neighborhood in Decatur in terms of violence, poverty, household income, and arrests. One in three houses is abandoned and boarded up, and others have been burnt down or covered with graffiti. It’s a place with drugs, crime, and garbage.”
And now it’s also home to Leonard, his wife, and their three young girls. After several years of working in this neighborhood—throwing block parties, leading prayer walks, assisting with household repairs, and building relationships with the residents—the couple felt called to move into the neighborhood themselves.
“We wanted ministry to be more relational than program-centric,” Leonard says. “The church caught that vision and put resources into buying and renovating an old house in the area. Together, we have redone the entire inside of this 1905 house. People have donated thousands of volunteer hours. And the idea is that it will be a tool for ministry.”
The family’s personal rooms and belongings are on the second floor, and only their family will have access to that level. However, the kitchen, dining room, living room and bathroom on the first floor will be “open” space; open to the community and to whatever ministry God wants to do through the Leonard family.
“We don’t have formal block parties anymore,” he says. “We put a bunch of burgers on the grill in our backyard and kids show up and it’s an instant block party.”
At the same time, First Christian’s adoption of the block has also beautified other parts of it. Volunteers hauled so much trash out of a few abandoned lots that the city gifted the properties to the church; these lots are now community meeting space for the neighborhood. Another empty lot is now an orchard with apple, peach, and cherry trees.
“Our business administrator says it’s turning into ‘Acquire a Block!’” Leonard laughs.
He stresses that all of this has taken time—time to gain the trust of the neighborhood, time to develop a vision, and time for the church members to understand it.
“We have people who want to donate food or clothes for us to give away,” he says. “Their hearts are good but we have to remind them we are not in the neighborhood to be a food pantry or a thrift store. There’s a major divide in our city between those who have and those who don’t. We don’t want to contribute to that by creating a sense that the Leonards are just here to save everybody. We want to be part of the neighborhood.”
Although the move has gotten some attention from local media, Leonard is quick to reject the idea that his family has done anything “heroic” by leaving the suburbs and opening their new home in new ways.
“We’re just being obedient,” he says. “God hasn’t called everyone to this, but he’s called us.”