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Going Public with His Faith

Going Public with His Faith

Moody alum’s unexpected career arc spans public health, emergency management, and the US Department of Homeland Security
  • Jeff Smith
  • February 8, 2024

Like his classmates, after graduating from Moody Bible Institute, Jason Sanford ’99 hoped to use his Bachelor of Arts degree in Urban Ministry “to serve Christ by serving those in need.”

“I had gained a public service mindset from my time at Moody,” Jason says. “As students we learned a servant leadership perspective, that leadership is about serving Christ by serving others.”

Twenty-four years later, Jason finds himself working in a field and position he never anticipated God would call him to. Since June 2023 Jason has acted as regional terrorism prevention coordinator for the US Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships. His current job continues a 22-year public service career that has taken him across a spectrum of roles in homeland security, emergency management, and public health.

Jason didn’t expect to travel this unconventional vocational road for a Moody alumnus. But looking back, he believes God divinely prepared him for this career as early as infancy, when a woman’s monumental decision changed the trajectory of his life.

Answer to prayer

After his birth mother put him up for adoption, Jason was five days old when Janis Sanford adopted him from New York. Janis began raising him in Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania, a working-class town of 2,000, and personally led him to the Lord.

At age six, Jason and his mom experienced tragedy when their house burned to the ground. Jason now sees how these early life events were building blocks for his future in public service.

“The Lord used [the adoption and housefire] to help give me compassion for others in need,” he says, “whether they struggled with the impact of COVID, marginalization, or the loss of loved ones in a natural disaster or domestic act of terrorism.”

‘Working there was life-changing’

After the fire, Jason and his mom moved to DuBois, Pennsylvania. Janis Sanford sent her son to public school, where Jason developed a passion for evangelism.

“My mom felt it was important for me to be integrated in the world as a witness,” he says. “I started telling people about the Lord and sharing the gospel in high school. I had the privilege of leading people to the Lord. That is still baked into my mind to this day.”

After Jason graduated from high school, his pastor encouraged him to apply for a job with Inner City Impact, a youth evangelism and discipleship ministry in Chicago founded by Moody alumnus Bill Dillon ’65.

“Working there was life-changing,” Jason says. “I saw that God is the same God to inner-city kids as He is to rural kids like me. I taught them God’s Word and helped them get off the streets, build meaningful relationships, and make a difference in people’s lives.”

‘One of the best experiences of my life’

Jason’s time with Inner City Impact motivated him to enroll at Moody in 1995 so he could major in Urban Ministry. “Moody molds the way you think,” he says. “Moody gives you the ability to filter the world through the lens of God’s Word. I really value that to this day.”

Jason also gained real-world ministry training from his Practical Christian Ministry assignments at Moody, leading after-school Bible studies and homework sessions with Inner City Impact and volunteering at the Cook County Jail.

“Moody was one of the best experiences of my life,” Jason says. “I gained such a strong theology and grounding in the Bible that to this day I still believe what I believe.”
 

Unexpected career arc

Following graduation and an evangelism internship in Israel, Jason landed his first job in Chicago helping teens transition out of foster care into adulthood. He then became a case manager working on behalf of children in crisis: new refugees, kids in the Department of Children and Family Services, and youth abandoned by their families.

Shortly after 9-11, Jason’s career took an unexpected turn when he entered the public health sector as an HIV case finder for Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. In his role, Jason alerted patients when test results revealed they were HIV positive, then helped them obtain the resources and support they needed to lead productive lives.

“At times it felt like I was fighting an endless battle,” he says. “But I would draw strength from knowing that I was making a difference. Each life is worth it.”

Jason embraced public health as his calling from God. In 2004, he was named supervising communicable disease control investigator for Chicago’s Department of Public Health.

“I would advocate for people exposed to diseases and intervene for them,” he says. “That was fulfilling to help the homeless, abandoned, and the so-called least of these. They were hurting. The bottom line is to love God and love others and serve God and serve others.”
 

Christlike Compassion

To bolster his effectiveness in this new field, Jason earned a Master of Public Health with an emphasis on crisis, emergency, and disaster management. But Jason recognized one of his most useful career skills in public health and later homeland security was contextualization. His missions classes at Moody had taught him how to offer the hope of Christ in a culturally relevant way.

“He’s always been concerned with the common good,” says Shawn Harvey, Jason’s current accountability partner and a close friend from his time at Moody. “At the core of his work is his concern for people. It was certainly a path he was on. The thing that’s never left him is his desire to impact people on a personal level by sharing Christ and his concern for the common grace available for the entire community.”
 

Helping the most vulnerable

In 2014 Jason was named emergency preparedness coordinator for vulnerable populations with the State of Georgia. For the next three years Jason led the integration of all healthcare services into the state’s emergency operations process. He cultivated Georgia’s strategic operations plan for vulnerable populations by building statewide alliances between nursing homes, dialysis centers, healthcare facilities, and all local county emergency management agencies.

Creating these new coalitions would ensure that medical needs were met for the elderly, at-risk groups, and other vulnerable populations during tropical storms and other disasters, such as an ice storm that crippled the state’s roadways in January 2014.

“Ultimately the position was all about bringing people together for a common cause,” Jason says.
 

Shift to homeland security

While Jason delved into his career in public health, he was developing a budding interest in another public sector: homeland security. He earned a Master of Homeland Security from Penn State University, and in 2017 he returned to Chicago to accept a role as the city’s senior emergency management coordinator. Jason spearheaded initiatives that addressed such public safety issues as preventing active threats against the faith-based community, shoring up supply chain weaknesses, and mitigating risks to displaced people from large-scale incidents like power outages.

Jason says 9-11 was a motivating factor. “It had always made me think on a deeper level: What can I do to help out as the world is changing? That was always in the back of my mind.”

In 2019, Jason’s responsibilities expanded when he was appointed senior policy advisor to Governor JB Pritzker’s Illinois Homeland Security advisor in 2019. Over the next four years, Jason oversaw prevention measures toward targeted and domestic violence extremism in schools, churches, and businesses.

One of Jason’s initiatives expanded an existing violence prevention program for K–12 schools and higher education. He also directed community efforts to address targeted violence while examining the root causes of risk factors for violence, ranging from drug addiction to gang membership.

When COVID-19 spread worldwide in 2020, Jason’s attention was diverted to public safety in the midst of a pandemic. He was tasked with forming partnerships between a broad coalition of sheriff’s offices, public health departments, emergency management agencies, healthcare facilities, and social service agencies at the state, county, and local levels. Jason’s goal was to craft best practices that would support vulnerable populations throughout Illinois.

“Jason is fantastic at building relationships and learning first,” says Gabi Hane, who collaborated with Jason on a COVID public safety strategy while they worked with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. “I appreciated Jason’s demeanor in always listening first and asking questions that helped folks process and get to the core of what they are experiencing and strategically make sure people are heard and then feel there is a helpful path forward.”

Jason says his mission during the pandemic was single-minded: “Providing people with personal protective equipment and places to quarantine and isolate to stop the cycle of COVID was really important to me using my background in public health.”
 

Preventing terrorism

Jason’s state homeland security experience prepared him for his newest role since June—working with state, county, and city governments as regional terrorism prevention coordinator with the US Department of Homeland Security.

“The focus of our office is prevention of targeted violence, terrorism, and domestic violent extremism by building multi-agency partnerships that deliver the resources they need to prevent acts of violence or domestic terrorism,” he says.

As extreme acts of violence surge in the US and worldwide, one challenge for Jason and his DHS colleagues is remaining hopeful in an increasingly violent culture.

“You don’t know when that next event is going to happen,” Jason says. “You can do all this work, meet with all the right people, and build all these partnerships just to see someone target a school or house of worship. You don’t really know the difference you are making, but we know we’re doing something right.”

While Jason never envisioned homeland security, public health, and emergency management as his ministry calling, he appreciates how God used his education at Moody to lay the groundwork for him to serve in government.

“Looking back, going to Moody was the best decision I ever made,” he says.

“Without my urban ministry training, I would not have the foundation that helps me minister to others in the constantly changing circumstances I have found myself in.”

 

More from Jason

About the Author

  • Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is creative director of Marketing Communications with Moody Bible Institute. After earning a BA in Journalism from Eastern Illinois University, Jeff worked for 11 years in the newspaper industry as a news reporter, sportswriter, and sports editor before serving for eight years as editorial manager of Marketing and Corporate Communications with Awana Clubs International.