By Justin Horey
Joliet, Illinois, is a prison town. The Joliet Correctional Center opened in 1858 and housed inmates for nearly 150 years until it was closed in 2002. The prison shaped Joliet’s culture for a century and a half, even bringing fame and notoriety; it served as the setting of the opening scene in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers and the site of the first season of the Fox television drama Prison Break.
Even though that prison has been closed for 15 years, the Statesville Correctional Center remains open just outside of town, so the prison influence continues. Joliet’s minor league baseball team is named the Slammers. Film and television fans regularly visit Joliet to see the abandoned prison buildings in person, making the closed prison one of the top “Things to Do in Joliet” on TripAdvisor.com—with a four-bubble rating out of five.
Matt Summers went to Joliet for a very different reason. He moved there to set people free.
Church Planting and the Recession
Summers grew up on an 80-acre farm in suburban Tulsa, Oklahoma, near the town of Owasso. That hometown, in his words, had “zero ethnic or political diversity.” After college, he preached at a rural church near Kansas City. Neither his upbringing nor his ministry experience prepared him for the poverty and the diversity he encountered upon moving to Joliet. He said, half-jokingly, “I didn’t know Democrats could be Christians until I moved to Joliet.”
In 2006, Summers was hired by the Chicago District Evangelistic Association (now Ignite Church Planting) to Maple Lawn Christian Church, a once-thriving congregation, and use the assets to plant a new church. (See “A New Church Planted in an Old Church” for more on this unusual story.)
When Summers launched Crossroads Christian Church in 2007, the new church began with a purely attractional model of ministry, like many other church plants at the time. Summers and his team focused on the Sunday-morning experience, children’s ministry, and other programs designed to draw people to worship. Crossroads grew in its early days, but just one year into the church’s brief history, the Great Recession hit Joliet, imprisoning the people of the city with poverty previously unknown.
The economic downturn that began in 2008 quickly transformed Crossroads from a middle-income congregation to a low-income urban church. As the recession dragged on, the few remaining middle-class families in the neighborhood moved west, and more low-income families moved in.
Looking back, Summers said, “We planted at the right time for our community.” Rather than sticking with the original plan and ministry model, Crossroads adapted, embracing a missional and incarnational approach designed to help serve the people in the community.
Reinventing the Wheel
Because Summers had no prior experience with urban ministry, he established partnerships with other organizations already working to serve people in Joliet. Instead of launching its own recovery ministry, Crossroads began supporting the MorningStar Mission, a local rescue ministry for homeless families and addicts. Summers admitted, “I really don’t know a lot about how to do that kind of ministry.”
Today, Crossroads provides funding to MorningStar and sends volunteers to serve at the mission on a weekly basis. That partnership has drawn people to Christ, and Crossroads now provides transportation for men residing at MorningStar to church services on Sunday mornings.
What began out of necessity has become a core ministry philosophy at Crossroads. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Summers said more than once. Whenever possible, the church seeks out partnerships with successful organizations instead of creating its own ministry programs. Crossroads dedicates 11 percent of its budget to missions, including local charities.
Summers said the church also ministers to people in the community through its partnership with “Joliet Cares,” a local event that meets physical needs by providing free dental work and medical screenings. Nearly 5,000 people have attended Joliet Cares since the first event in 2009, and Crossroads now supports the event every year.
In part because of Joliet’s “prison culture,” Crossroads is also deeply involved with Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program. Last Christmas, the people of Crossroads provided Christmas gifts to more than 200 children of incarcerated parents through the Angel Tree ministry. “This church loves people who are outcasts!”
Summers said he originally planned to minister in Joliet for seven years, but God changed his plans and his perspective quickly. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said. Seeing the poverty his neighbors lived with every day and serving alongside people with a different perspective helped him adapt to his new surroundings.
Summers has now served in ministry in Joliet for more than a decade, and he isn’t the only person at Crossroads with a passion for loving and serving the people around him. The congregation has embraced the church’s mission and vision of connecting people with Christ and connecting Christ with the community.
Ministry in Recovery
As the economic recovery began, new employers came to Joliet, but they mostly brought warehouse jobs—lower-paying positions than the jobs that had been lost in the downturn. Today, both IKEA and Amazon have warehouses in or near Joliet, but those employers and others like them have actually brought about a lower median income in the area.
Throughout its first decade, Crossroads has grown rapidly—like many contemporary suburban church plants—but its urban setting makes Crossroads different from its suburban peers.
“As our church has grown, our per-capita giving has gone down,” Summers said. “We’ve had to learn how to do ministry on a slim budget for a church our size.” That slim budget affects every area of ministry—from facilities and programs to hiring and staffing.
Yet just as God used the inexperience of Summers to create partnerships for vibrant ministry, he has provided for the church’s staffing needs as well. But instead of looking outside, as Crossroads did for ministry programs, the church has looked inside for staff. In fact, 9 of the 11 paid employees are Joliet natives (Summers is one of just two transplants).
“We raise up our own leaders,” Summers said. “We don’t hire them from the outside.” That approach has benefited the church and the community, because, as Summers pointed out, “People that are hired locally know how to operate in this context.” Practically speaking, Crossroads is able to hire staff locally for less than it would cost to hire “an outsider,” but the primary benefit of hiring locals is that they love Joliet and the people of Joliet.
A Homegrown Story of Redemption
Jake Garcia, the director of discipleship ministries, is one of those local hires. Summers proudly calls him “one of the best discipleship guys in America,” and he loves Joliet despite his challenging upbringing.
Garcia was born and raised in Joliet. Sadly, his parents were gang members and drug addicts so he ended up in foster care at a young age. At one point, Garcia lived at MorningStar Mission, the same mission he and Crossroads now support.
Garcia was separated from his older brother during their time in foster care, but while they were apart his brother came to Christ at Maple Lawn Christian Church—the same church whose assets would later be used to plant Crossroads.
Garcia’s brother invited him to Maple Lawn, where he was loved unconditionally. Eventually, a woman from that congregation even took him into her home and raised him as her own. Garcia remembers thinking, These people are so different, this Jesus must be for real.
He accepted Christ when he was in 12th grade and then enrolled in Bible college. After graduation, he worked at a Chicagoland church plant for several years before joining the staff at Crossroads, where he ministers to people who face many of the same challenges he once faced. Having been set free by the love of Christ, Garcia has the unique ability to share the gospel with people desperately in need of the same freedom.
Because Crossroads considers outreach to be part of discipleship, Garcia personally follows up with first-time visitors and anyone who has a question or wants to talk to a pastor. Through that work, he met Terry, a resident of MorningStar Mission who was working to put his life back together. Through the mission’s “180” program, Garcia’s ministry, and Christ’s redeeming power, Terry graduated from the program, got his life on track, and was recently baptized.
Garcia’s job responsibilities are broad, but he said, “My role is to help people in our church connect with each other through community groups and connect with our community through outreach events.” Sometimes those outreach events are so significant that the church’s small groups take a break from normal meetings for a month or more to prepare! In February, the people of Crossroads were so committed to the “Night to Shine” event (produced in partnership with the Tim Tebow Foundation) that Garcia had to turn volunteers away.
The Impact and the Impetus
It isn’t easy to change a city, but Crossroads Christian Church’s effect on Joliet is undeniable. Since 2007, the church has grown from 30 to 900 in average weekly worship attendance, with roughly 1,300 overall who consider Crossroads their church home. The congregation recently bought a new facility and will relocate this winter.
The numbers are all trending in the right direction, but Summers knows a church’s real impact is measured in changed lives and changed communities as people learn to love the Lord and love their neighbors. Though his ministry in Joliet isn’t what he expected, Summers has no plans to do anything else. After a decade of ministering to people imprisoned by poverty and hopelessness, Crossroads Christian Church knows that its purpose—“to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18)—is clear. As the Blues Brothers would say, they’re on a mission from God.
Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.
Joliet State Prison photo courtesy of David Wilson/Wikimedia Commons.