By Adam Miller
CLEVELAND, Ohio– At breakfast one winter morning the owner of a Cleveland area restaurant interrupted Jeff Bodziony’s conversation with a friend. Bodziony and the owner knew each other after months of these morning meetings.
“What would you do with 100 pounds of chicken a week?” the owner asked.
Everything in his life to this point had prepared Bodziony to answer this potentially odd question. He was at a crossroads. Only a few months out after a one-and-a-half year prison term where he’d accepted Christ, Bodziony wanted to settle down and lead a normal life with a normal job.
“I was just glad to be home,” he says. “I just wanted to sail into the sunset with Jesus.”
But as empty and painful as his previous life had been, God was about to use it to transform a neighborhood. This new chapter of his life began 13 years ago with the death of a close friend.
Tragedy leading to change
Bodziony’s friend had been calling him all day, distressed. Even his friend’s father called saying, “There’s something wrong. Please come talk to him.” But Bodziony was in no hurry for things that didn’t affect business. When Bodziony finally arrived to meet him, his friend’s car was in Lake Erie, and his friend’s father was scaling a cliff to save his son.
“If it didn’t pertain to business I didn’t hear it,” Bodziony says. That night, though, Bodziony began to listen again as if for the first time.
He had grown up without a father in Slavic Village, a community in Cleveland’s South Broadway neighborhood, so named because of its history with Polish and Czech immigrant communities formed around the steel industry. But when Bodziony was young, the place became associated with gangs, drugs, prostitution and poverty. Bodziony says this environment helped shape how he viewed the world, women and money. “It painted a certain picture of what a man is, and that’s what I wanted to be,” says Bodziony.
By age 18, Bodziony’s enterprise had grown from selling marijuana in his high school to operating a network of dealers and warehouses throughout the Cleveland area. He moved out of Slavic Village and bought a house in the posh residential area of Willoughby Hills.
“The way I knew how to get the things I wish our family had was through dealing drugs and getting involved in gangs. I bought into that hook, line and sinker. It was my life, my identity, my everything,” says Bodziony. “I had wholeheartedly bought into the concept that I could make this a lifelong successful company. I thought I had a system that was impenetrable, but in the end everyone gets caught.”
That system helped him achieve everything he thought he wanted, but he still had a lot that was missing.
“By that point I had started asking some questions like, ‘Why isn’t this working?’ I had achieved everything I wanted out of life, but I was miserable as a person. No matter how much stuff or things or relationships I had.”
Bodziony’s life began to unravel the night his friend died. “I remember going home and asking God, ‘If You exist come into my life and do something to change things.’” God answered his prayer in ways Bodziony probably didn’t expect. “When I walked out of that office my whole life began to fall apart.”
Over the next few years, as warehouses and dealers in his network began falling into the hands of law enforcement, Bodziony saw the walls closing in. The system that had brought what he thought he needed eventually brought him to the point where he could listen to God.
God’s love in a box of old books
Bodziony was in prison, facing up to seven years on drug trafficking charges, and he immediately began devising a plan for how he could rebuild his empire once he was paroled or released. Then two months into his sentence, a box of used books was circulated among the inmates. It was filled with worn out copies of romance novels complete with Fabio covers. And among them was one well-worn copy of the Bible, a book he’d only scarcely glimpsed during his Catholic school days.
“I took it back to my bunk. It was definitely the most surreal season of my life. I would hit the bunk and God would speak,” says Bodziony. “Absolutely breathtaking how many lies I bought into. I began to think ‘There actually might be something to this Bible thing.’ I think I was just amazed at how it so intricately details the ways of the world.
“I remember at 3 a.m. I was reading John. I am the vine. You are the branches. It was obvious that it was a God moment. In my mind God rewound the clock and took me back to that time in my office. Everything that had happened led me to that moment. I remember praying, ‘I don’t have a ton to offer at this moment. I just have shower shoes. But with everything I am as a person, I quit. I die to myself right here and now. Carry my corpse through the rest of this life and show me the abundant life You’ve meant for me to live.’ There’s no denying that something cataclysmic happened on the bunk that night. I walked over to the bathroom. I took two or three steps, and I remember watching my feet because I felt like I was walking on clouds.”
Bodziony’s sentence was reduced to one and one half years, but oddly he was soon sent to the Ohio State Penitentiary, the state’s maximum security prison. This contradictory turn of events proved to be miraculous. It was here, at Ohio’s only smoke-free prison, that Bodziony quit smoking—a habit he’d been trying to kick. It was also at this prison where Bodziony met prison chaplain Leo Feher who discipled him until his release and modeled for him how to live a life honoring to Christ.
So after all this, Bodziony had learned not to be surprised by how God shaped circumstances in odd ways. The answer to that question of how he would use 100 pounds of chicken per week was a simple one. He knew exactly what he’d do with 100 pounds of chicken.
“I knew where all the squatter houses and crack houses were,” said Bodziony. “I knew where the homeless were, and I knew who could use some food.”
So only weeks after answering that question, Bodziony was showing up at the front doors of the homes where he’d provided drugs years before.
“They must have been shocked when their old dealer showed up on their porch with food instead of drugs,” Bodziony says.
Within the first six months, nearly 50 people accepted Christ through this outreach, but Bodziony couldn’t think of any church where he could send them. No church where they would feel comfortable, no church for addicts and homeless, existed in the city. Bodziony, who had been their drug dealer, would soon be their pastor as the seeds of Forward Church would take root in Slavic Village.
Now he’s on the streets of his old neighborhood every day visiting with residents and the homeless and providing food and encouragement to his new congregation.
Not every member or attender who comes to Forward Church is freed from addiction and the struggles of their life before Christ. And of course not everyone who comes has accepted Christ. But most who attend Forward Church are given a Forward Life Plan specifically created for individuals as a gospel-centered path out of bondage and addiction and into freedom and responsibility.
Now Forward Church meets in a large, three-story building in the center of the community and provides a place for even the most destitute to be welcome with open arms. Cleveland is one of 32 Send North America cities, where churches like Forward are planted to reach communities with the gospel.
“The biggest ticket the enemy tries to sell in our neighborhood is that I can’t go to church because of who I am,” Bodziony says. ”I smoke weed and cheat on my wife. But Jesus says come to me all you who are heavy laden. So you can come to the church and put out your blunt or put down your 40 and walk into our front door. It’s only when you come as you are that Christ can radically change you and give you a taste for the good things He has for those who follow Him.”
Forward Church is about connecting real people with a real God in the context of their real, everyday life.
“In any neighborhood, there is a cultural bubble. Inside of that bubble is where the everyman operates; where he shops, where he recreates, where he is educated, etc. Generally, the Church operates outside of the everyman bubble and hopes for the lost to just step outside of that bubble at some point to come into our little bubbles. God has given us an opportunity in my neighborhood to operate right in the middle of the cultural bubble, to meet and impact the everyman right where they’re at in their everyday life, and to revolutionize what people think of when they think of God and His Church,” Bodziony says.
Engaging inside the “bubble” of Slavic Village has brought reconciliation to countless lives—including Santon Davis. He was only months old when he entered foster care, and by age 18 he was homeless.
“There was a period when I slept in an abandoned house and there were nights I either wandered around Walmart or wandered up and down Broad Street,” Davis says.
Davis had been attending Forward Church during that time and would show up to help with things around the building. No one knew he was homeless. He even worked at a car wash and at a fast food restaurant after sleepless nights in the dead of winter.
“In the foster care system when you’re 18 they give you $500 and a computer and wish you well,” says Jim Azlein. Azlein, a member at Forward Church, heard about Davis’ situation from Bodziony. He immediately agreed to take Davis in.
More than 120 days later, Davis still lives at Azlein’s house. He’s been studying diesel mechanics at Ohio Technical College and hopes to work on big rigs and industrial generators when he graduates.
“At first I went to Forward just for the relationships, but as some hard times came upon my life, there were people there who really wanted to help me,” says Davis. “That was the turning point.”
Adam Miller is associate editor of On Mission.
Originally published at anniearmstrong.com/moving-forward.