GARFIELD PARK — The corner of Washington and Pulaski was strangely quiet. A few cars rolled by the abandoned buildings and gas stations, but there were no sirens blasting, no people shouting.
It was a late summer evening in the heart of a community more famous for gang violence than tranquility. But on this corner, all that could be heard was the voice of a man praying.
About 20 people locked hands and formed a circle that covered the entire sidewalk. Their heads bowed as the man prayed.
“Father God, we ask that you bless us, we pray that you protect our children. We need you father. Our children are being shot down in the street! Remember the grieving families. Bless the South Side, West Side, North Side! We pray that you start to saturate our neighborhoods! Go through the alleys, return fathers, sons, daughters from the streets! We pray that that people put down their guns. We pray that they give up alcoholism and drugs. Have your way in the community! Just as you did it for us, we pray you do it for them.”
The “us” are the Young Ministers United, the self-proclaimed “bad boys" of the ministry made up of nine former rival gang leaders who decided to heal the West Side communities that they used to menace. As ordained ministers, they prefer the streets to the pulpit, spreading hope where it’s needed most. They hold an “hour of power” at 7 p.m. Mondays, praying with anyone who passes by.
A burly man in a blue shirt and long cross necklace took over the prayer and raised his voice with emotion.
“This is not about religion; it’s about a relationship with God,” he boomed. “I’m not a religious person. When I came home from the penitentiary, I didn’t have nothing. But God provided for my family. I am here not because I’m so good, but because I’m good to God’s people.”
A woman in a CTA uniform and a man on a bike started to record the scene on their phones. A few men stopped to hug the ministers and shook their hands.
After about 45 minutes, the ministers, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, closed the prayer and guided people to a tattoo studio around the corner.
The shop, “Divine Tattoos,” is owned by minister Tim Freeman, and the group had stocked it with hamburgers, hot dogs, chips and water to feed anybody who was hungry.
“We want the people to feel the love. It’s the love that’s been taken out of the community that has caused a lot of the problems,” said Anthony Clay, 46, president of Young Ministers United.
For two years, he and the group have been holding revivals, street prayer sessions and marches throughout the West Side, trying to address the area’s violence and hopelessness. These are qualities that as a former gang leader and ex-felon, Clay knows a lot about.
Growing up in the Garfield Park community during the '70s and '80s, Clay joined the Black Gangster Disciples when he was 14.
“I was running in and out of the streets, trying to impress my friends,” he said.
At Farragut High School, Clay was a star football player. He wanted to go to the NFL but didn’t have the support to reach his goal. His mother and stepfather worked constantly to provide for Clay and his three sisters but the absence of a strong parental figure took its toll, and as he was lured deeper into the streets.
“I used to sell joints for a dollar at school,” he remembered. Before long, he was selling primos, or cocaine mixed in cigarettes, and heading up a larger drug operation for the gang that sold heroin and cocaine.
Clay ended up in prison four times, the first time for armed robbery at 19.
“I robbed a friend who had a lot of heroin and didn’t want to give it to us,” he said.
From the mid-'90s through 2008, his constant drug addiction and imprisonment had him convinced that he didn’t have much longer to live.
“I thought I wasn’t going to make it — the drugs had worn me out. Heroin breaks down your body,” Clay said.
But when he made it out of prison for the last time in 2008, Clay was convinced that God had spared him from murder, suicide and drug overdose for a purpose.
“He delivered me from the streets for a reason,” Clay said. “It was to come back to the streets and show people that the same thing he did for me, he can do for you.”
Leroy Calhoun, Johnny Johnson, Tony Coleman, Tony Rice, Harold Washington Jr., Tim Freeman, Preston Allen and Maurice Hibbler are all former gang rivals who became ordained ministers and formed Young Ministers United in 2014 with Clay as president.
They all have day jobs and focus on their street ministry, using their own money, the rest of the time. Coleman works for the city. Johnson is employed by a railroad. Calhoun owns a restaurant. Washington installs cable. Allen works with teens with disabilities. Rice is self-employed, and Clay works as a debt collector.
Considering that they all have records, their jobs and ministry are an impressive showing of determination and accomplishment that they are trying to pass on to community members who feel that they won’t ever have better lives.
“Johnny and Leroy are the elder. They hold us up; we learn a lot from them. God brought us all together. We didn’t even like each other when we were in rival gangs. Now we’re all eager to preach. We were doing wrong for so long,” Clay said.
But what difference can a bunch of ex-gang members turned ministers make in a community drowning in violence, crime and poverty? Clay feels they can help by demonstrating another way to live.
“I was there where a lot of people are now. I was strung out on drugs and homeless, and I have to be here as an example. I’m clean. God has blessed me in so many ways, and I have to give it back to the community,” he said.
Clay lives with his wife and four children in a home that he had built from the ground up in the heart of the Garfield Park neighborhood. He said that he didn’t want to come back to the community. He wanted to go someplace where he wouldn’t have to see the drugs and crime that he had already conquered.
“But God gave me a vision,” he explained. “All the things that we conned people out of, all the negativity that we did, what the youth are doing now is our responsibility. All that we taught them by example was a lie. We have to give back to the next generation to break the chain."
Anthony Clay and Youth Ministers United offer prayer and free food at the Washington Boulevard and Pulaski Road intersection from 7-8 p.m. every Monday, weather permitting.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here.