A Dayton native returns home to plant a church
By K. Faith Morgan
DAYTON, Ohio – When Randy Chestnut and his wife of 35 years, Denise, sensed God calling them to establish a church and ministry in Old North Dayton, it was a homecoming for both. Raised in the area, the couple had deep roots in the community. But while Old North Dayton is home, the region has seen many changes since his childhood, says Randy Chestnut.
The steady slide in manufacturing jobs in the area’s auto industry squeezed the local economy. But in an urban landscape dotted with vacant homes and signs of decay, Chestnut saw potential.
“This went from being a middle class working neighborhood to being more of an impoverished neighborhood,” Chestnut said. “The median family income in this neighborhood is $27,000 a year. About a quarter of people live on $15,000 a year or less. It’s one of those things where there’s a sense of desperation, and that sense of desperation opens up doors to a lot of ministry opportunities.”
Chestnut’s congregation, Hope Community Church (HCC), meets at Kiser PK-8 School—the same building where the Chestnuts once attended high school. The small congregation engages with a number of partners to help leverage their outreach potential and vision for ministry. By coming alongside established organizations and municipal entities, HCC has gained the trust and respect of community leaders and neighbors alike.
“If you do [service] consistently in the same place over long periods of time, then people know, okay, this is not just a church that’s coming in and doing a project, and then they’re off … There’s nothing wrong with that. We need that, but we also need folks that will plant their lives in communities like this and stay a long time,” he said.
HCC’s home base school is one of five schools in the city designated as Neighborhood School Centers (meaning that the school also functions as a community center). HCC utilizes the building free of charge throughout the week for a variety of outreach opportunities.
“The school sees needs to be met in the community, and we want to partner with them to do that,” said Chestnut. “The platform of serving gives us the opportunity to share the gospel in a very natural way. ” Kids’ sports programs, a young men’s ministry, and a weekly community meal all operate out of the school facility.
“HCC, their values, and, really, their understanding [of] the needs [here] is really important,” said Teresa Wendell, Kiser Neighborhood Center site coordinator. “We work with a lot of folks all over Dayton, but those that really get it understand the urban core … that’s when you can really make some changes.”
Chestnut’s return to Old North Dayton also coincided with the launch of a citywide initiative to attract immigrants. Dayton officials saw an opportunity to grow the city’s tax base and counteract population decline; Chestnut saw a chance to reach a global audience with the gospel. Partnering with the neighborhood and business association last year, HCC helped host The Taste of Old North Dayton celebrating the exceptional cultural diversity in the area.
“We were able to have a food court highlighting the different nationalities in our neighborhood,” says Chestnut. The tasting event included cuisine from nine different nationalities as well as HCC’s booth distributing classic American carnival food and gospel literature to the over 500 event attendees. Old North Dayton is also home to the largest population of Ahiska Turks (an unreached Sunni Muslim people group) in North America.
“I had been praying for a number of years to get connected with an unreached people group,” Chestnut says, so he contacted the group’s leader. “I just said, ‘How can we serve you? How can we help you? I grew up in this neighborhood; I’m a Christian,’ and that started our relationship,” he says. That friendship has opened many ministry doors and conversations, including an incident a couple years ago when the Chestnuts hosted two Turkish families in their home at Christmastime. One of the children inquired about the Nativity display in the living room.
“I have a copy of the Jesus DVD in multiple languages including Turkish,” says Chestnut. After showing them the “Christmas portion” of the movie, he gifted both families with a copy of the movie. “The next day I ran into one of the guys that was there, and he said, ‘Oh, we went home, and we watched the whole thing. Then there at the end’—and he spread out his hands to show when Jesus was crucified—you could tell this guy was really moved by that.”
Of all of his various partnerships and associations, Chestnut highlights the importance of partnership with the church body at large. From prayers to financial support to short-term teams, he cites all as necessary components of HCC’s ministry. “We couldn’t have done this without our partnerships with North American Mission Board, our Greater Dayton Association of Baptists, our State Convention of Baptist Ohio,” he says. “We realize that we could not do these things if it weren’t for prayerful and faithful supporters.”
K. Faith Morgan writes for the North American Mission Board.