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A Winding Journey

A Winding Journey

Englewood Resident Has a Vision to Transform the Community
  • Jamie Janosz
  • July 29, 2022

When Ronald Clay was in elementary school, his father moved the family from their chaotic Chicago Englewood neighborhood to the south suburbs. “He saw where we lived as a place plagued with violence, hopelessness, sadness, and no sense of purpose,” Clay said. “My father saw that and wanted more for us.”

What Clay never expected was that a winding life journey would lead him back to Englewood some 30 years later to work with Englewood Family Outreach—though it took some convincing to bring him there.

“About two years ago I didn’t want to come,” Clay admitted. “I didn’t want any part of Englewood.” When he brought his wife to see the broken-down two-flat in the gang-ridden neighborhood where he was born, she said, “Absolutely not.”

“The kitchen and bathroom were terrible; there was a hole in the ceiling. It was a mess. But the Lord gave me a vision of what it could be,” Clay said. “My wife and I went from dreaming of life on the Gold Coast to this reality.”

Clay finished the renovation of his home in January 2021 during the pandemic. Today, the home has blue kitchen cabinets and a freshly painted yellow door. Clay believes this transformation is only the beginning of what God will do.

“The Lord gave me a vision for the community, just like He did for this house,” Clay said. “It’s like a ripple effect.”

A Winding Journey

Clay grew up as the son of a preacher, but his life took a dramatic turn after college when he was arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Then in October 2012 Clay’s father died of a brain aneurysm.

“His death led me to Christ,” Clay said. “I was dabbling in other things in prison, even God’s Word, but when my dad died, things changed for me.”

After his release, Clay decided not to stay in Kentucky, where he served his prison term. He returned to Chicago, residing in a halfway house in Humboldt Park. In May 2017, while riding the CTA bus to work, Clay noticed a sign for Moody Bible Institute, a historic Christian college on Chicago’s near north side.

One day, he got off the bus at 820 N. LaSalle Boulevard and talked to an admissions counselor. Shortly after, he enrolled in Moody Theological Seminary to study the Bible and prepare for a life of ministry, a 180-degree change from where he had been headed. Clay has two classes left to complete his Master of Divinity Degree program.

At Moody, Clay met Natalie, a student from the Caribbean who would soon become his wife. He also met Daniel Bair and fellow student Justin Francis from Englewood Family Outreach, a nonprofit organization in his childhood neighborhood. As they spoke of mutual friends, one who had recently been shot, they asked him to visit the center and see first-hand the work they do. Their commitment to bring hope and life to the community spoke to his heart.

“Moody is the reason I’m at Englewood,” Clay said. “The doors that opened to me were doors I already knew.”

Two Men, One Vision

Today, Clay serves as program director at Englewood Family Outreach. The center has served the Englewood community for more than 30 years, providing hope and help to residents through after-school activities, outreach events, and Bible studies.

Clay lives on-site while serving alongside Bair, the executive director. The two come from contrasting backgrounds. Clay is from Englewood; Bair is from the farmlands of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

“The last place I ever saw myself was in Chicago,” said Bair, who has served with the center since 2001. He wants others to see the Englewood he has experienced, not one of grim statistics but of ordinary people who are living in a difficult environment.

Englewood Family Outreach’s motto is Connect. Assist. Restore. Empower. Both Bair and Clay have a passion for Englewood residents. They not only want to restore buildings and fill empty lots but provide the community with practical help that allows Englewood’s people and families to thrive.

“A constant thread running throughout the conversations we have with people in our community is ‘We’re not all bad,’” Bair said. “We hear so much overly negative news. But probably as few as five percent of the people in Englewood are the ones committing newsworthy crimes. They say, ‘We’re here trying to survive, to raise our kids, to do the best we can with our situation.’”

Plagued by Problems

Englewood has a long-standing reputation for violence, poverty, and gangs, but Bair and Clay see a solution centered on faith and building strong families. For decades, Clay’s grandfather pastored Blooming Rose Deliverance Church at 6730 S. Halsted Street. But the church didn’t often venture outside the parish doors. This lack of connection between church and community is one thing the center hopes to change.

“The number one way to prevent gang involvement is to encourage church involvement in a community,” Bair said. “The gangs are strongest where the church is weakest.”

Englewood also has the lowest marriage rate in Chicago. Few children are being raised in a two-parent household, which has led to other problems.

“Talking to the children, they are unfamiliar with the concept marriage or what a fiancé is,” Clay said. “The terminology is foreign to them.”

“I don’t know of anyone in the community from the community that’s married,” Bair said. “Englewood has the lowest marriage rate in Chicago. There are a lot of children being raised without a father. They need the church to step in and guide them. When the church doesn’t do that, the gang will.”

Englewood families need support in order to thrive. “We want to bring truth,” Clay said. “People want truth. They’re grasping for something different. They’re drowning and need a life raft.”

Seeing a Future

Clay pointed to a vacant lot and abandoned building directly across the street from the center. “The Lord gave me a vision of what this neighborhood could be,” Clay said. “It was like that scene in the Wizard of Oz—everything went from black and white to color. At that moment, I saw the potential of what it would become. I saw color.”

Clay’s drive and excitement to restore and build the community is palpable and contagious. Currently the center opens its doors to teenagers who drop in regularly after school to play video games or shoot hoops on the paved court between the two buildings. But the team and volunteers don’t wait for residents to visit. They go to them, venturing out into the community to meet needs and build relationships.

During the pandemic, that meant going house to house with bags of food or rolls of toilet paper. Last week, the center hosted a barbeque, inviting local residents to come together for a meal.

“We have intentionally built relationships with the people our society has most neglected and despised with the goal of restoring them to their communities of church, family, and neighbors,” Bair said.We do this through Bible studies, mentorship, discipleship, teaching trades, and other programs while purposefully focusing on cultivating these relationships.”

“We are in the process of building an after-school program,” Clay said. “I want to reach the young people so their hearts and minds aren’t stuck in their ways. I studied evangelist D. L. Moody in prison. He was a fascinating person to me. Moody’s approach was to spend time with children. He knew how to reach people.”

Investing in the Next Generation

Ray grew up in Englewood. Now a freshman at University of Illinois Chicago, he came to Englewood Family Outreach in middle school at the invitation of a friend.

“We really need things like this,” Ray said. “Englewood is hard for people who live here, impoverished people. The center is a place for kids like me to come and chill and have fun without worrying about where the next meal might be.”

The center helped Ray begin a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. “The most I knew about religion was going to church with my grandma on Sunday,” Ray said. “I started going to Bible studies and that was the spark I needed. I’ve seen kids learning about the Lord and having fun. Seeing that helped me. Man, this is a really cool place.”

Ray briefly stopped coming to the center one summer due to problems at home. When he walked by one day and saw Bair sitting on the porch at the facility, they talked.

“I told them what had been going on,” Ray said. “And since I was looking for a job, so I could have some worth, I asked them.”

Today works part-time at the center. “That one question gave me opportunities I never thought I’d have,” he said. “They’ve helped me with a lot. We need more of this. I feel like a new person.”

Englewood Family Outreach has big goals: to build 10 community-focused programs that promote belonging and restore dignity; to see 100 adults with steady jobs giving back to the community; and to involve 300 family members in a local church.

About the Author

  • Jamie Janosz

Jamie Janosz is managing editor of Today in the Word and content strategy manager for Moody's Marketing Communications department.