By Josie Bingham
Fourteen-year-old Demaj Splunge walks confidently into Reborn Community Church in the Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago. He’s been attending the church youth program since elementary school, and he’s happy to be there. The church has changed his life. He may not have an official leadership role at Reborn, but his presence and subtle charisma leaves a mark.
“Demaj started coming here after school,” says Reborn ministries director Samantha Jakus. “Our church is close to the elementary school, so kids wander over here. We have about 30 to 40 in our youth program now.”
In 2013, Reborn Community Church suffered a terrible loss. An eighth grade girl was murdered, and the tragedy struck a chord with her peers. They were never truly the same.
“Demaj’s presence at the church was an after effect of the tragedy,” Samantha says. “The kids took the loss pretty hard but, in God’s grace, they became really tight after that. I was a girls-group leader, and the girl we lost was one of my six. I watched other children mourn her and find strength and healing at our church. Demaj was part of that group.”
Reborn Community Church’s vision is to transform lives one person at a time has been fulfilled in Demaj’s life.
“One year ago, we took the kids to camp for spring break, and Demaj bonded with the male leaders,” says Samantha. “The men at our church took the opportunity to pour into Demaj, answer tough questions and gently guide him through different things he was facing. I believe it was through those relationships that God started breaking Demaj’s heart and paving that path of leadership and dedication in Demaj himself.”
“Before Reborn, life was a little difficult,” says Demaj. “All I noticed was all the struggle, like the crime going on around me, and I was scared. Now that I believe in God and I have faith, I am not so worried about shootings because I know God is going to protect me.”
Demaj is one of the most persistent and spiritually hungry students Samantha and other Reborn Community Church staff have seen. He’s the only young adult invited to the adult men’s Bible study on Wednesday nights.
“The boys are at an age now that is so crucial,” Samantha says. “They’re 13 years old and on the streets of Chicago. Many of them have single mothers. Dads have been killed or neglect their sons. Many of the boys around Demaj’s age never seem to get the support they need. For Demaj, he’s on his own and doesn’t receive a lot. We’re serving him here at Reborn, as a family, and we’re getting to watch Demaj do the same for the six guys he is chasing after with the gospel.”
Dedicated is the word used most often to describe Demaj.
“He loves his friends so much,” says Samantha. “Recently, five came to Christ because of Demaj’s influence. He is different, and they could see that! But there was the sixth boy—Demaj just couldn’t let go of it. He was on my case all summer to be praying for his friend. He would even go get the kid and bring him to my house. He definitely challenged his friend a lot, but he cares a lot.”
Not only is Demaj a crusader for Christ with his friends, Demaj is a connection that Reborn Community Church now has with the local elementary school.
“We’d been praying for an open door with the school because schools have great insight into the lives of our neighborhood children and their families and needs,” Samantha explains. “Demaj was our answer to prayer.”
“Reborn taught me to love on my teachers, even though it was hard sometimes, and that has helped me at school a lot,” says Demaj. “I try to have a positive influence at school. Some of my friends, they’d be bad for no reason. But sometimes I talk with them, and they come to church with me on Sundays or Thursday nights.”
Principal Tiffany Tillman of Genevieve Melody Elementary School noticed the shift in Demaj’s demeanor a year ago. His change in attitude and focus impressed her and the staff so much, they sat Demaj down and asked him, “What happened? Why are you different?”
It gave Demaj a chance to share about his church.
“The principal and staff care so much about the children,” Samantha says. “They’ve watched Demaj grow up, and they fight for kids like him. I love that they never let kids slip under the radar.”
Through Demaj, they put their walls down.
“The principal knows what children need, and they are open to letting the church come in and help,” Samantha says. “A counselor meets with kids. She will refer families over, those who are struggling, so we can support them. Many schools are firm about not supporting churches, but that’s not the relationship we have with this school. Our philosophy at the church is that we’re a church body, and our outreach is just an arm to link kids to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Josie Bingham writes for the North American Mission Board.
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