Jeff Bodziony Jeff Bodziony
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Its bricks are crumbling. Its windows are covered in dirt and dust. Cigarette butts line the sidewalk, and the street outside glitters in the sun from broken bottles. If not for the large orange diamond insignias framing the front entrance of the building at Broadway and Barkwill avenues, you could almost pass by it without a single thought. 

On the left: “Come as all that you are. Become all that you ever dreamed to be.”

On the right: “We are a family that has no mission, except that God’s mission may have us.” 

This Sunday morning at Forward Church, a small group of burly bearded men stand beside a makeshift coffee bar comparing tattoos — one wears a black bandana and a matching biker’s vest with an “Order of the King Priest” patch. Another sports a Sons of Anarchy sweater with his hair pulled back in a tight knot. Around them, small children in hand-me-down clothes chase each other, ducking under their parents’ arms, dodging in and out of white plastic tables. When they have passed, a man who is probably in his early 50s, struggles to rise from his seat while he clutches the top of his cane. 

Everyone here looks like they’ve arrived at the end of a workday, worn down and worn out. They huddle over their coffee in Styrofoam cups and talk to anyone who will hear them about their families, their jobs and their lives in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood. When the doors to the service hall open, it’s clear there are no boundaries here. Everyone hugs as they file inside.

As the worship team comes to the front of the room, the energy simmers. A squat woman in a gray track jacket takes center stage while two black men in athletic clothes stand on either side, leading a hymn with verses delivered through rap: “I’ve been through fire, I’ve sacrificed blood, the burns hurt a little, but I ain’t what I was.”

Shaking hands are raised, drowsy heads bob and their voices, so plain and out-of-tune, coil up in harmony as they sing louder and louder, “Rise up. Rise up. Rise up.”

When the song ends, everyone sits quietly as Jeff Bodziony delivers today’s sermon at the transdenominational church.

At 36, the pastor wears a black-and-white plaid shirt with sleeves that stop just above his elbows so his tattoos are visible. On the inside of his right arm, a black cross is wrapped in green vines. On the outside of his left, letters spelling, “Perseverance” are faded and far apart so that it looks like it was hastily drawn on.

“You’ll notice in our building at Forward, the vibe is very different,” he says. “That’s because we didn’t come here to play some flaky religious game or just polish up the outsides of ourselves in some self-righteous social club.”

His head is shaved, the dark circles under his eyes are telling, and when he talks about Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, it’s just as raw — every few sentences cut short as he trips over words and circles back to explain what he’s saying. Behind him on the projection screen is the title for today’s sermon: More than What Meets the Eye.

“We’re a broken people. We’re jacked up. Bound to be flawed and to mess up and to get angry and to lust after stuff,” he says. “There is no amount of holy rituals I can do out here that will ever fix the fact that something is broken up in here.” 

He places both palms on his chest, over his heart.

The laid-back swagger of his speech permits “dude” and “man” to fall out of his mouth naturally.

“The same condition of heart that causes me to be mad at the dude who cuts me off in traffic is the same heart condition that causes a serial killer to murder people in a rage,” he says.

Someone in the audience whispers an “Amen.” It’s quickly followed by another. While he speaks, every eye is on him because they recognize something familiar.

“God loved me when I was a jacked-up drug dealer running the streets of our neighborhood, hating him, openly dogging him,” says Bodziony. “Because he loved that dude, I want to give my whole life to doing whatever the heck it is he puts up in front of me.”

Jeff Bodziony working in Slavic Village

Six days a week, Jeff Bodziony works in the Slavic Village neighborhood, delivering food and furniture, cleaning and offering hope to those in need. 

Before Bodziony brought salvation to Slavic Village, they called him “Boz.”

The cross hadn’t yet been planted on his arm. In its place was the acronym MOB: Money Over Bitches. “Everybody looked at him as an idol,” says Jeff Andrews Jr., a close friend and former partner in crime.

Bodziony had a rough start. His father abandoned him and his two siblings for California shortly after Bodziony’s birth. His mother, Joyce, remarried when he was 6, and they moved into a three-bedroom home on Worley Avenue where his stepfather lived. 

His stepfather worked up to three jobs, yet the family sometimes sought government assistance to stay afloat. Bodziony attended Holy Name Elementary just a few blocks away and served as a parish altar boy. And while his Catholic upbringing introduced religion to his life, Bodziony says, “I wasn’t truly buying in.”

He was raised that you had to fight like hell for anything you wanted. But there was an allure just out of his periphery in the small, two-family public housing units across the street where his friends donned Starter jackets and Jordans while riding on the backs of BMX bikes. It’s where 12-year-old Bodziony first met a 25-year-old drug dealer who lived in the same building as his friend. He tried taking Bodziony under his wing by showing him how to deal pot, break it down into dime and quarter bags, and sell it for profit.

“I think the idea was that I would become a runner boy for him,” says Bodziony, who recalls the initial introduction as being more casual.

For most of his early teens, however, he continued working hard, spending hours after school doing chores and mowing lawns. During the summer before his freshman year at Cleveland Central Catholic High School, he’d saved $200 to buy a red Dyno BMX bike.

A week after his big purchase, he took it out for a spin just west of Broadway Avenue near Morgana Park. As he was coming up the hill on Heisley Avenue toward East 65th Street, 12 kids doubling on bikes started riding down toward him.

As they got closer, he recognized one of them from playing basketball in the neighborhood. Thinking he could diffuse any problems, he stopped his bike to strike up a conversation — and was blindsided.

A kid to Bodziony’s left, wearing brass knuckles, slammed his fist into the side of his face. It knocked him to the ground, his mouth filling with blood as they took off with his prized possession.

When he felt he could walk, Bodziony struggled up the hill toward home. As he reached Broadway, a police car sat at the light. Visibly bleeding, Bodziony waved for help. 

“He looked at me, and he kept going,” Bodziony says. “I had to walk about a mile-and-a-half back up to my house.”

Bodziony’s jaw had been broken. He started high school two days later with it wired shut. And everything changed.

“He wouldn’t go to school, he wouldn’t come home,” says his mother, Joyce. “I didn’t know where he was a lot of the time.”

Desperate to take back what had been taken from him, Boz started working for the 25-year-old dealer, selling pot to other kids at school and making connections with seedy characters who claimed to be members of the Bloods. As Joyce met these friends, she grew more concerned. But no amount of lecturing and scolding worked.

“I was always looking for him,” she says.

By the time he returned as a sophomore, Boz shaved his head and had stepped out from under his mentor’s tutelage, operating on his own, stashing large amounts of pot in the ceiling of his second-floor bathroom — until his mother discovered the smell and the stash.

“I was afraid to leave my home or go anywhere, because what if he was going to start selling from my house,” she says. “He was just a cold person. He wasn’t the same.”

As Boz gained credibility, tensions escalated between him and other dealers. Instead of backing down, the 17-year-old lashed out, robbing the house of a more well-known dealer. He claims to have stolen more than $12,000.

“The dream in Slavic Village is always to make it out,” says Bodziony. “That was really the catalyst that took me from small-time corner guy to really getting into some major circles.”

When his mother kicked him out of the house for refusing to leave the drugs behind, Boz relocated to a house in Willoughby with a newfound girlfriend and a reputation as the only dealer from the neighborhood worth dealing with.

“He didn’t want to live by no rules,” says Joyce. “He wanted to do what he wanted to do.”

At 17, Andrews lived on his own on the same street where Boz grew up. He made $12 an hour working for Allied Van Lines and had been introduced to Boz through his 15-year-old girlfriend. In exchange for free pot, Andrews allowed Boz to use the residence as a storage house, a connection point for his operation. If someone wanted Boz, they went through Andrews first. 

“If you were the dealer, you were the elite,” says Andrews. “He would tell us all the time how he was smarter than all of us because we were the ones buying it and he was the one selling it.”

Boz had developed a safeguard system in which he would only deal personally with what he called level-one employees — people he trusted as customers and loved as friends. He had up to four people working directly with him at any one time, selling in the street and running up to three storage houses to maintain steady business.

“In order to get as large as he got selling drugs back then, you had to really have a good business model,” says Andrews.

At its height, Bodziony says, his business had expanded to Michigan and West Virginia, moving larger quantities of marijuana and adding prescription pills and Ecstasy. He wouldn’t leave the streets until he had at least $1,000 in his pocket every day.

“I was a slave to money and all the things that came with that lifestyle,” says Bodziony. “If it didn’t deal with the business, I didn’t deal with them.”

Christine Nelson thumbs through the yellow, waterlogged pages of her Bible as she sits on the washed-out green sofa where she sleeps. The 47-year-old doesn’t have a bed. Neither does her 18-year-old son, Jake, who sleeps on a pullout mattress in what would have been a dining room had an electrical fire not consumed most of their home in 2008.

Pictures of Nelson’s three daughters and six grandchildren are displayed on a small desk in the corner across from a closet overflowing with crumpled papers and plastic bags. In the room where Jake sleeps, there’s a small blue playpen for when the grandchildren visit. If it weren’t for these few objects and some crayon-drawn portraits on the fridge in the kitchen, you might think the place was abandoned.

The floors are made of plywood and the walls are gutted, spilling exposed wires and insulation. Even the air is dank and stale, like long-forgotten ashtrays that have been seeping with tar water and soggy cigarettes. All around them, the house is rotting.

They haven’t had heat for three years — not since the furnace shut down when the basement flooded, forcing them to rely on space heaters and blankets for warmth.

But she’s never thought of finding another place to live.

“This is my home,” says Nelson, her voice cracking behind a tight-lipped smile. “God helps me with whatever I need.”

Folded inside of her Bible, a blue postcard from Forward Church lists tasks she’s set out to accomplish with God’s help: “3 AA meetings/week,” says one. “Accept things you cannot control,” reads another.

Nelson is just one of more than 70 people on what Bodziony calls a Forward Life Plan — a goal-based system designed to improve and enhance every part of someone’s life — from personal development and spiritual commitment to finances and housing security.

“The concept is just to serve people right where they’re at with no judgment,” says Bodziony, who helps any community member in need. “Just love them, take the church to the street and serve them agendalessly with no business cards attached and no invites.”

Bodziony drives his four-door green minivan to more than 40 homes in Slavic Village six days a week to deliver donated food from Giant Eagle, Panera Bread and the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport food court. As greater needs arise, he takes care of those too, delivering furniture, cleaning houses and making small repairs.

Last year, Bodziony’s team gave Nelson a new water heater and repaired her water main after it was accidently cut in 2012 while trying to stop her sewer from backing up into her basement. For the first time in a year-and-a-half, Nelson could take a hot shower in her home.

“There’s always going to be problems in life,” she says. “But now, knowing how to face them with God’s help, anything is possible.”

Nelson’s story isn’t very different from many who remain in Slavic Village, one of Cleveland’s oldest neighborhoods and ripe with Polish and Slovenian heritage. “In some parts of the neighborhood, you’ll see a lot of life happening, a lot of renovation, new condos,” says Bodziony. “But for a majority, you’ll see streets where it’s like a third-world country, where every house is abandoned.”

The foreclosure crisis left more than 3,000 vacant lots in Slavic Village, 1,250 of which contain abandoned structures. Many senior citizens who stay behind are in desperate need of help when their family members have either died or moved away.

“We forget how important stability is to neighborhoods, how important it is to have the same folks staying in place here year after year,” says Christopher Alvarado, executive director of Slavic Village Development Corp. “These are folks who hold the history of the neighborhood, who are that glue that any urban neighborhood depends on to keep the culture of the neighborhood strong.”

Nelson is hopeful but aware more work needs to be done: orange barrels in front of her Mead Avenue home mark where the sidewalk used to be before the installation of the new water main. Now, she runs the risk of being cited by the city for not replacing it.

Last year, Bodziony brought in more than 1,500 missionaries to replace porches, repaint houses, landscape yards and install community gardens.

“They do a lot of work that goes into stabilizing the neighborhood,” says Alvarado. “It’s like Forward Church almost doesn’t have doors. They live what any community of faith should be living.”

This summer, Bodziony is bringing 1,200 missionaries from organizations such as the North American Mission Board and Boy Scouts to help with projects that require plenty of manpower and volunteers.

“For a decade of my life, I roamed these same streets and delivered polluted water to people, knowing they’d have to call me in three days thirsty again,” says Bodziony. “God’s given me a chance to come back with living water.”

On June 10, 2001, Boz’s world began to crumble.

His best friend at the time was 22-year-old Jerry Anderson, who ran a storage house at East 75th Street and Union Avenue. The pair was often inseparable, hosting parties together and playing pool. But their friendship was also intertwined with the power of their partnership. 

When Anderson was arrested for drug possession and suffered from bouts of anxiety over the potential jail time, he confided in Boz. Then Anderson’s girlfriend broke up with him, and he called Boz seeking additional help.

“He said, ‘Hey, Jeff, I need to talk to you as a friend today. Not as a drug dealer guy,’ ” recalls Bodziony. “I just blew him off completely, and said, ‘Look bro, I don’t have time for that.’ ”

Around 8 p.m., Boz received another phone call — this time from Anderson’s father. He pleaded with Boz to come to Painesville Township. Anderson had driven his ’88 Dodge Durango out to where his parents lived and had been doing laps along Lake Road, refusing to pull over or talk to anyone other than Boz.

Yet Boz waited two hours before making the drive through a terrible storm. As he neared the house, two ambulances rushed past him in the rain. Boz felt a pang in his gut, so he followed close behind until they came to the end of the road where Midway Boulevard dead ends into a cliff overlooking Lake Erie.

Boz pulled over and got out of his car as the medics rushed toward the end of the road. There, on the edge of a 100-foot-cliff in the rain, he caught a glimpse of Anderson’s father scrambling down the embankment. Ahead of him, 65 feet into the lake, was Anderson’s overturned vehicle.

“For the first time ever, the veil was torn in my life,” says Bodziony.

Boz was confronted with a new reality: His best friend died because the kingdom he fought so hard to build had gotten in the way. Then just two weeks after Anderson’s death, he got another sign — Boz’s girlfriend announced that she was pregnant with his child.

“I tried to muster up the courage to just walk away,” says Bodziony, who began working as a telemarketer for six months. “There were just too many forces fighting against me trying to quit. Every day of my life was like a Playboy party.”

He grew careless. Instead of grooming level-one employees by forming a solid bond as he had done with Anderson, he started testing their loyalty through high-risk trials. In one such test, he would leave the subject alone with $1,200 on the table at a storage house while he ran errands. If he returned and the money was gone, he knew he couldn’t trust them. If it was untouched, they were in.

“I was derailed,” says Bodziony. “All my bearings, all my self-control, even all the variables like good luck and bad luck just started to fall on the opposite side of the tracks.”

He unraveled as his own addiction grew. Over the next four years he snorted coke and popped pills. Eventually, his then-fiance left him and took their child with her. 

“I’m in this beautiful house in Willoughby, but I’m all by myself in the dark, drinking myself to sleep in the basement,” says Bodziony. “A lot of the friendships I had started to break apart.”

On May 26, 2005, Boz was en route to a strip club with a new girlfriend in the passenger seat. On the way, they stopped at one of his remaining storage houses on East 55th Street. He headed north on Interstate 77 when another driver saddled up beside them, honking his horn and blowing kisses at his girlfriend. Enraged, Boz swerved toward the vehicle. The driver called the cops. And minutes later, Newburgh Heights Police pulled up behind Boz, flashing their lights.

Forced to think quickly, Boz handed an ounce of cocaine to his girlfriend, who hid the bag in the glove compartment. When police asked Boz to step out of the car, they searched him and found a half-pound of marijuana in his pocket and the 1-ounce bag of cocaine in the car. 

He was facing two counts of drug possession, two counts of drug trafficking and one count of possession for criminal tools.

Two months later, he was arrested again for drug possession.

“After I bonded out of jail, I knew I was being watched so I shut everything down,” says Bodziony.

He struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to one count of drug possession and both counts of drug trafficking. He was sentenced to one year of probation and his license was suspended.

But one month shy of finishing his sentence, he broke parole by getting a DUI and was sentenced to a year-and-a-half in jail.

As Inmate 522150 at the Lorain Correctional Institution, Boz mostly kept to himself. He exercised with cell mates in a dormitory setting and read from a donated prison Bible — a ritual he calls, “getting your Jesus on.”

“One night I came to John 15,” recalls Bodziony, now eight years removed. “Jesus was hanging out with his dudes, and he said, ‘In all the world, I am the vine and you guys are all branches. If you plug into me, I’ll bear fruit in your life that will actually last. If you don’t, you’ll wither up on the ground chasing your tail.’ ” 

It stopped him. “I realized my significance was way greater than what the ’hood thought of me or what girls thought of me,” he says. “I had comfort suddenly that was beyond comprehension that wasn’t based on a high or any temporal thing.”

There in the dark, Boz started to cry. Out of fear of waking anyone, he sprung down from his mattress and started toward the bathroom. With each step, he was overcome with relief. He felt as if he was floating, that something was lifting him up.

“There was an underlying, fundamental knowledge from that moment that I was not alone in this walk through life,” says Bodziony. ”And that changed everything.”

Even the little things mattered now. On movie night, brief nudity bothered him. He felt guilt about his dependence on cigarettes. 

So he prayed for assistance. “I was like, ‘God, I’ve been smoking since I was 14. This is something you’ll have to work with me on,’ ” says Bodziony. “As soon as I was done, they called my number over the loudspeaker.” 

He was being transferred to Ohio State Penitentiary: the only nonsmoking penitentiary in the state at the time.

Elated, Bodziony began ministering to other cellmates. Most, like his bunkmate, dismissed him. They’d seen plenty of prisoners come in, find relief in Scripture and go right back to what they were doing when released from jail.

But Bodziony wanted to be different. After nine months, he was remanded to the Salvation Army Harbor Light Complex on Prospect Avenue. The eight-story transitional housing facility required Bodziony to meet with his probation officer on Sunday morning, making it impossible for him to attend most church services. 

Devout on pursuing this new life, he sought out Cuyahoga Valley Church, which had a Saturday night service. After a few weeks, he connected with the youth pastor, who met with him weekly at a local Chik-fil-A to talk about the ministry. The two pored over Scripture and talked about how they could instill the teachings in their own lives. 

Eventually, the fast-food franchise owner started to join them and offered to donate 100 pounds of chicken each week to their cause.

“I realized that I knew every addict in this neighborhood, every squat house full of homeless people, and everyone who was going to buy drugs instead of food,” says Bodziony.

So when his time was up at the Harbor Light Complex, he moved back with his mom and stepdad into the Worley Avenue house where he grew up. Admittedly, they were skeptical.

“He would read his Bible,” says Joyce. “We didn’t know if that was real or not, but you could see that first and foremost.”

He also started working in the warehouse at Sherwood Food Distributors. Unable to drive while on probation, he took three buses each way for a workday that began at 6 a.m. and ended around 2 a.m. 

“The daily grind of the working man to bring home a $300 check was a tough temptation,” recalls Bodziony. “All the old business associates would be one trip up the street, and I could go from flat-broke working 12 hours a day to piss-rich.”

He started hitting the streets, armed with 100 pounds of Chik-fil-A chicken instead of drugs. He went first to the United Convenient Market on Broadway, where a small group of homeless men hung out in the rear of the lot. They pointed Bodziony to other squat houses in the neighborhood. On one of those doorsteps, Bodziony came face to face with his former bunkmate from Lorain Correctional Institution. For him — nothing had changed.

“There were so many profound, unexplainable things happening,” says Bodziony.

Although originally put off, the former bunkmate accepted Bodziony’s outreach. Over time, Bodziony began delivering groceries and cutting the grass at the houses where his former bunkmate was holing up so the city wouldn’t cite him for trespassing.

“When people see him and connect with him, they trust him,” says Cuyahoga Valley Church’s founding pastor Rick Duncan.

In the first six months, 48 people accepted Christ through similar outreach. As Bodziony’s followers grew, he felt the need to develop into a leader. Neo360 — a training program Duncan helped design in 2007 — gave Bodziony the skills he needed to take his street-level approach and apply it toward planting churches. 

“We want to be so great at contributing to the restoration of our communities that people — even if they don’t believe what we believe and don’t worship with us — still value us because they see us as positive contributors to the community,” says Duncan.

During the six years that followed his return, Bodziony volunteered for local youth ministries, spoke to kids at schools within the community and appeared as a guest speaker for Sunday services. When offered money, he would refuse.

In March 2010, Bodziony helped the youth pastor from CVC start a new church in Westlake by leading Sunday services and administering guidance to the youth ministry. Three months later, he married Lauren — whom he met two years prior while speaking at a church in New Jersey. And later that same year, at the Boys & Girls Club, he shared poetry and told his own story as the opener for a motivational speech by former New England Patriots offensive lineman Devin Wyman, who had spent six months in jail and three years on probation after being charged with drug trafficking as a teenager.

“I have no right to share the truth if not from a platform of love,” says Bodziony. “So my job is just to build a dang platform so high of love in someone’s life that they know I truly love them no matter where they’re at, no matter what their faith statement is.”

The young audience’s response to Bodziony’s performance was so electric that he received an open invitation by the director of the Boys & Girls Club to return on Sundays. By 2014, he wanted a space with more permanent availability. So Cuyahoga Valley Church, the North American Mission Board and the Cleveland Hope Association helped him acquire the facility on Broadway and Barkwill avenues. He counts 198 as the number saved by Forward Church so far.

“Every single day, somebody is there and something is getting done in the community,” says former storage house leader, Andrews, who now lives near Youngstown and returns to help at the church every weekend. “It’s not just that you go to church — you go out and you serve the community like Jesus taught.”

It’s the first Saturday of the month, and people have been lining up on Barkwill Avenue since 8 a.m. They’ve come to Forward Church because they are hungry, with bags slumped over their shoulders, pushing carts with one hand and guiding their children with another.

At the rear of the building, tables are overrun with mountains of cabbages piled on top of one another like pyramids, carrots stacked next to bundles of celery and potatoes bagged and waiting to be given away at 10:30 a.m.

By 1 p.m., more than 12,837 pounds of veggies, fruits and bread will be given to 234 households thanks to a partnership with Care on the Square ministry and the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.

“At Forward, our entire mission is to connect the ordinary everyday people to an everyday God,” says Bodziony, as he recites his story to those 17 volunteers gathered around him.

They no longer look to him as a king of the streets in Slavic Village. Instead, he’s more like a ferryman.

“I will never forget that first service,” announces Care on the Square co-founder Tom Wagner, who began this monthly initiative with Forward last summer. “One of the worship songs that was sung was ‘City on a Hill,’ and I’m thinking, We are sitting here in the epicenter of the financial crisis, and these people have their hands raised in worship saying, ‘We need to be a light to the world!’ It was just so real.”

As the crowd trickles in, they fill their bags with whatever they can carry, and unload whatever ails them. Nearby, Bodziony looks on, knowing his work isn’t over. He plans to open a coffee shop on the corner and host youth event nights to tighten the church’s connection to the community. He’s also in the process of renovating two apartments above the church for those with Forward Life Plans who suffer from addiction or abuse and are in need of an affordable transitional housing facility.

“We challenge our people right from the door that we’re about serving, not sitting; we’re about relationships, not religion; we’re about acceptance, not judgment; and we’re about progress, not pretending,” says Bodziony. “I’ve seen I have the cure to everything that ails the human heart. God’s given me this vision, and I can almost clearly see a community resurrected.” 

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