By Russ Howard
Of the countless strategies we have to reach and restore people to Christ, none are as simple, profound, or powerful as Jesus’ simple command to “love your neighbor” (Mark 12:31). For more than 20 years BLOC Ministries, an inner-city ministry on the west side of Cincinnati, has done just that. The people live where they serve.
BLOC’s roots reach to the hollers of Kentucky where Dwight Young was born and raised. Dwight met his wife, Stephanie, at Johnson Bible College. Together they served churches by working with teenagers in Louisville, Knoxville, and eventually Cincinnati.
Early on, Michael, a student in their church ministry, asked if they would plan service opportunities with a faith-based nonprofit organization in the urban core of Knoxville. They agreed as long as he initiated contact. They gave him a phone number, not expecting him to follow through. Before they knew it, their youth ministry was working in the inner city four days a week.
Come and See
Several years and five children later, the Youngs led a student ministry on the west side of Cincinnati, and God moved them through one simple Bible passage. In the opening lines of John’s Gospel, he tells of two men who were following Jesus and wanted to know where he was staying. Jesus invited them to come and see (John 1:35-39). In this simple story, the Youngs heard God calling them to “come and see” his plans for them. God invited them to join him in loving and serving the poor and needy in Cincinnati.
In May 1998, Dwight told their church they would be leaving in September to launch a nonprofit. They had no board and no money, but they trusted in God’s leadership and provision. They formed BLOC Ministries that fall.
BLOC began with Bible studies in 16 schools and three after-school programs operated in partnership with churches near the schools they served. Leading Bible studies before school and programs after school demanded 12-hour work days from the couple. Two years into the ministry, they were overwhelmed and exhausted.
After that, the Youngs decided to focus their work, and they began in the village of Cleves, a small community on the Ohio River. They opened an after-school program and connected with at-risk students during hours and hours of playing games together, fixing and riding bikes, doing homework, and eating a lot of pizza. The ministry grew. By 2005, BLOC’s renovated church building housed their extensive youth programming, tutoring space, job training, and more.
Opportunity in the Urban Core
During this same season, God provided opportunity for BLOC to start after-school programming in Price Hill, a diverse community in the urban core of Cincinnati. Like many inner-city communities, Price Hill struggles with crime, high unemployment, dilapidated housing, and extreme poverty.
“I love Price Hill, but there are challenges to loving Price Hill,” says Chris Staser, director of ministry operations. “It’s the number-one incarcerated youth area in the city. Price Hill is number one in heroin use, and with that comes sex trafficking. The child homelessness rate is through the roof. But more than all of that, there’s a deep spiritual need.”
BLOC’s leaders and volunteers see hopelessness on every street, but they believe in the power of hope and in the power of Christ to save, and that’s why they seek out the most neglected neighborhoods. BLOC launched an after-school program in West Price Hill (on one of the most dangerous corners in the city), and God continued to open doors. Today, BLOC runs programs for kids and students in Cleves, West Price Hill, East Price Hill, and Lower Price Hill.
Drive through the neighborhoods and you’ll see BLOC buildings seemingly on every corner. They provide job training through industries like woodworking and T-shirt printing. The BLOC Sports Performance Center offers professional-level training and mentorship for middle and high school athletes in preparation for college academic or athletic scholarships. BLOC’s arts center gives kids and students opportunities to participate in dance, drama, painting, ceramics, and creating their own original music in a modern recording environment.
BLOC coffee shops operate in East Price Hill and Cincinnati’s City Hall; it often lands on lists of best coffee shops in the city. The Price Hill shop provides a space for people who are living and serving in the community to gather, connect, and partner in what God is doing in the neighborhood.
We Live Where We Serve
BLOC’s ever-widening operations hold true to the principles of ministry learned early on. Staff members remain committed to one-on-one relational ministry and living in the neighborhood where they serve. Discipleship is the heartbeat of the ministry.
“Opportunities to love people don’t end at 5 p.m.,” Dwight Young says. “By being neighbors with the people in our community, we become trusted friends. We have more opportunities to daily be the hands and feet of Jesus.”
Neighborly love runs through all their programs. Their extensive ministries for women include such things as prison ministry, hospitality homes for women on the streets, and transitional housing for women who are getting off the streets. Amanda Rogers works with teenage girls through a program called Girls Wanted. She has lived and served in Price Hill for 11 years.
“What we really want is a relational connection,” she says. “We want them to feel heard. Feeling heard leads to trust.”
Like all BLOC staff members, Amanda does more with the girls she serves than just lead a two-hour program once a week. Her girls are in her home. They love joining her in the most mundane tasks: cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping. She smiles when she says, “My girls know where I keep the dishes.”
After two decades, BLOC continues to put their best effort into reaching and connecting with kids.
“When we reach the kids, we reach the families,” Dwight says, “And when we reach the families, we reach the neighborhood.”
Finding a Family, a Faith, and a Future
In about 2008, a 12-year-old named Keion walked into a BLOC after-school program in his neighborhood. He had fun playing games and riding bikes through the building. More importantly, he found people who cared about him. It was a safe place, and he came to trust Andrew, a young staff member.
Andrew learned that Keion lived at home with his ailing mother, who had suffered multiple strokes. Keion took care of her. There was no father in the picture, and Keion’s three older brothers had moved out. Keion kept the home together until his mother could no longer stay there.
When his mother was taken to a permanent care center, Keion, 14, slipped into homelessness, like many kids in the community. He sold his PlayStation for food.
At this same time, BLOC launched their first EPOH house, a residence for students who have nowhere else to turn. EPOH is hope spelled backward. Keion’s friend, Andrew, became one of the first supervisors for the boy’s home. Keion moved in shortly after it opened.
While Andrew and the other supervisors provided a safe home environment, academic support, and life skills mentoring, other BLOC staff members who lived on the same street invited Keion into their lives, including Chris and Kelsie Staser. Keion began having dinner in the Stasers’ home one or two nights a week. Soon he was eating meals with them even more frequently, borrowing their car, and babysitting their kids. They gave him a key to their home.
Keion saw Jesus on display in his new home and in the neighborhood, and a profound spiritual interest awoke in him. He engaged in lively conversations with his new friends, read Scripture on his own time, and started talking with God. On April 1, 2015, Keion was baptized.
With the support of Andrew, the Stasers, and the rest of the BLOC family, Keion graduated from Dater High School and was offered a full-ride scholarship to Cincinnati Christian University. While at CCU, Keion studied psychology, worked in the admissions department, and served as a resident assistant.
One night, Keion showed up at the Stasers’ home with a life-changing request. He looked at them and said, “I want you to be my family.” He didn’t know this was something they longed for but didn’t feel the right to offer. Soon after, Keion was adopted into the Staser family.
After graduating from college, Keion moved to Lexington, Kentucky, for an extended internship with Southland Christian Church. Today, he’s come full circle. While he’s discerning what God has next for him, he lives in his old neighborhood and leads one of BLOC’s after-school programs. He says, “I can see myself in these kids.”
This is the power of God’s love shared neighbor to neighbor. Listening to God’s call to “come and see,” Dwight and Stephanie Young couldn’t have imagined a homeless 14-year-old boy from Price Hill would one day find a family, a faith, and a future.
When Reaching Ordinary Is Extraordinary
While Kieon’s story borders on the extraordinary, BLOC celebrates all the ways God transforms the people and communities they love.
“There’s a culture now that if your life isn’t extraordinary, you are a letdown. In Price Hill, when a person has an ordinary life, that is huge deal,” Chris Staser says. “To go from where they are to ordinary is extraordinary.” He recounts a story of a young man from the neighborhood who now works at a local fitness center and is receiving a promotion.
They celebrate it when they overhear a local business owner say, “I remember how bad this street was before BLOC showed up.” They give thanks when a gruff man begins to volunteer with their food pantry and remarks, “This is the year my neighbors began to smile at me.” They praise God when a teenage girl who has struggled to survive notices other people who have needs and wants to go serve them.
This year, BLOC is training churches and short-term mission teams how to show the same type of love in their own neighborhoods. Everyone has neighbors, and everyone can love them. BLOC wants every follower of Jesus to know how to love his or her neighbor so that everyone everywhere can experience the absolute fullness of life in Christ.
Russ Howard serves as director of church partnerships with BLOC Ministries, as lead minister with Owensville (Ohio) Church of Christ, and as cohost of the weekly podcast, The Morecast. He lives in Price Hill.