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.”