The men who walk into Jeff Russell’s barbershop on Roosevelt Rd. in Forest Park can get a good haircut. While sitting in the barber chair, they can also get some counseling, and if they come on Sunday afternoon, they can go to church there as well.
On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, five men formed a circle of chairs in the Millionaires Barbershop and did church in a most unorthodox way. No hymns were sung, and Pastor Russell was not wearing a robe. Dressed informally in a sweater, he read a Scripture lesson. From that point on, the service felt more like a Christian men’s support group than what happens in most churches on Sunday morning.
The men made their living in different ways: one is a custodian, another a sales manager. The third is a vice president of marketing, and the man sitting next to him an electronics engineer. What they share in common is the feeling that they are not the kind of men they want to be.
One has reconciled with his wife after a separation and wants to rebuild his marriage on a firmer foundation. Another is a dad trying to learn how to be a good father for his two young sons. One participant, who was absent for that meeting, is an ex-convict struggling to put his life back together. Two have been unemployed.
What also draws them to this unusual “church” building is disillusionment with the traditional church and a shared trust that this barber/pastor is God’s instrument to help them mature as men.
One of the men declared, “Most churches are designed for women.” They spoke of a feeling of isolation in other churches and a sense that when they as men try to improve their lives, they are not getting much help. One man said that he asked his former pastor for an appointment to talk man to man a year ago, and he’s still waiting for a reply.
But in the barbershop Sunday after Sunday, they get the personalized attention they long for to help them, as one of the men put it, get to the next level. During the informal service, the discussion ranged from the struggle to be a good father to how to find a sense of inner strength when life makes them feel powerless.
Russell interjected a comment or thought-provoking question from time to time, but mostly it was the men themselves who were ministering, encouraging and, at times, confronting each other. One man talked about his experience at this church, which Russell calls the Jericho Road Ministry, as looking in the mirror. “We often look outside of ourselves to find the solutions to our problems, but here we can’t hide,” he said. “We can’t duck facing ourselves.”
“Here, Pastor Russell gives it to me straight,” he added. “He’s been down that path before, so he knows.”
Indeed, Jeff Russell wasn’t always what you would call a church-going person. Having grown up in a tough part of Chicago at 16th and Drake in the Lawndale neighborhood, he made a living selling drugs and had a “brush with the law.”
Somehow, though, he knew he should not get involved with a gang. It was an intuitive awareness of the power of relationships which enabled him to survive.
“Even back then,” he said, “I had the sense to know I couldn’t declare allegiance to a particular gang. What I sought to do is make an allegiance with a key member of each gang and that would give me a pass to each neighborhood. I wasn’t tough, but I was smart in terms of building relationships.”
But God wouldn’t leave the young drug dealer alone. “God was always sending people my way,” he said with a laugh. Sometimes they would encourage and help him. Sometimes they would pester and confront him, until a friend told him about a new pastor in town who was doing good things in the community.
“And as he was speaking,” Russell recalled, “it was as if I had an out of body experience. As my friend was talking abut the new pastor it was as if he was describing me. It was like an inner knowing. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
“That day I made the decision in my heart that I’m never going back to the streets again. From that day forward I never went back, never used or sold drugs again. I got rid of all my phone numbers, joined the church my friend was talking about and within a year, I was the minister of evangelism and president of the prison ministry.”
Russell served as an unpaid assistant minister for 14 years, studied, passed exams, got licensed and was ordained in 2004. Already living in Forest Park and having purchased his barbershop at 7535 Roosevelt Rd., this bi-vocational pastor began the process of discerning what kind of ministry God was calling him to do.
With his shop right across the street from the 15,000 member Living Word Christian Center, it would have been tempting for Russell to start building a traditional congregation. As time passed, however, he seemed to be led in the direction of counseling men.
He recalled how some of the barbers in his old neighborhood were not only good at cutting hair but were good with people as well. Many men, he said, will open up while sitting in the barber chair and talk about what they’re going through. He laughed as he said, “They will tell the barber things they would never tell their pastor. The reason is that many people associate their pastor with the word ‘judgment,’ and if they perceive their pastor that way, they are robbed of the freedom to speak openly to him.”
Russell described his unique ministry this way: “I am a counselor/teacher to men who use the vehicle of barbering to encourage them as a follower of Christ. Barbering has become a tool to use as an agent of Christ to encourage men and possibly give them some sense of direction.”