This year marks the 20th anniversary of the purchase of Forest Park Plaza by City Services, a for-profit arm of Living Word Christian Center. Rev. Bill Winston and Living Word bought the mall property from the Illinois Teachers Retirement System in 1998, taking out a mortgage for $13.2 million.  

Over the years, Living Word has grown from a storefront church to a 20,000 member megachurch. It–and its entities–have opened a business school, mall and bank, although the latter of which ultimately failed. 

“I don’t think anyone knew what the end game was when we purchased the mall,” said Melody Winston, property manager of the 33-acre campus at Forest Park Plaza, 7600 Roosevelt Rd. She is also the daughter of Rev. Bill Winston, the pastor and entrepreneur who put the mall purchase into motion all those years ago.  

Bill Winston grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in 1967. Having been a part of the ROTC program in college, he moved into Air Force flight school after graduation, and went on to fly fighter jets in the Vietnam War. After being discharged from the Air Force, he eventually got a job at IBM. But in 1985, he received a call to become a preacher of God’s Word. 

“It was all predestined,” Bill Winston told the Review in January 2015. “Viewing my life from hindsight, I think it’s the grace that God puts on you for the call that he has for your life. I just happen to have a call for a large multinational mega church with a number of entities that are going on.”

He opened a ministry called the Living Word Church at the corner of Lake and Pulaski in Chicago. A year later, he moved his small congregation to 7306 Madison St. in Forest Park. After outgrowing that facility, the ministry moved to the old Chez Roue Banquet Hall in 1994 and stayed there until December 1997. Then, “a rapidly growing membership, faith, and obedience to God’s Word enabled the church to purchase the retail mall” at 7600 Roosevelt Rd. The mall was once a torpedo factory.  

After buying the mall, Living Word spent the next four years prepping the facility, Clay said. When Winston purchased the mall, it was mostly empty and considered an economic blight by the village. Then-Forest Park Mayor Lorraine Popleka cited a vacancy rate of 90 percent in Chicago Tribune accounts of the sale. The mall was lined with vacant stores and a movie theater had just moved out.

The movie theater underwent a $13 million repurposing, and was converted into a megachurch, a 3,500-seat space designed by Chicago architects Teng and Associates. 

In the meantime, Walmart purchased the parcel of land where its store and parking lot are situated, Clay said. Portillos and Taco Bell, although not contiguous with the main building, pay rent to City Services, she added. The retail portion of the mall opened for business in 2002. 

Two years later, the village crafted an 11-year agreement that would pay half of all sales tax revenue generated by new mall businesses to Winston’s Living Word. 

This agreement covered a rebate in sales taxes “from everything but Kmart.” The agreement expired in 2015, or after the village’s payments reached $4.9 million, whichever came first. Along with the sales tax rebate, Living Word receives half the revenue generated by the Roosevelt-Hannah tax increment finance (TIF) fund, which must be used to for infrastructure. 

Living Word paid $4.9 million to contractors between 2004 to 2009 to remodel the mall.  

Winston explained that legally City Services, the for-profit arm, owns the Forest Park Plaza, and is separate from the church, although both are wholly owned by Living Word Christian Center. 

The physical layout of the facility is a metaphor for how the arrangement works. In the basement of the church is the Joseph Business School, a nonprofit that was founded in 1997, according to its tax returns.

Across the long corridor, on the north side of the mall is the for-profit side which currently is occupied by businesses like a dentist office called 28 To Brush, the recently-opened Harvest 365 Restaurant and the Royal Christian Bookstore.

Melody Winston confessed that are days when she doesn’t get much sleep. 

She thought she had a stable anchor store in place at the west end of the mall in Homeowners Bargain Outlet (HOBO), which is moving out after less than a year. One thing she is attempting to pull off is to attract some major national brands to the mall, one of which is Starbucks.  

In February 2013, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) also seized and closed Lawndale’s Covenant Bank, whose director and CEO was Rev. Bill Winston. Covenant’s closure wiped out investments from approximately 3,000 shareholders, many of whom were members of Winston’s Living Word Christian Church. 

“Being saved is foundational, but you can be both a sharp business person and a follower of Jesus,” said Melody Winston.  

Clay said more than 400 jobs have been created and that, between 2004 and 2015, City Services has paid more than $3.8 million in sales tax revenue to the village and more than $10.2 million in real estate tax revenue to the village and county.

Village Commissioner Joseph Byrnes, who heads the village’s finances, pointed out how important the mall is to the village’s bottom line by estimating that with Hobo closing Forest Park will lose around $90,000 in annual sales tax.

“When stores in the Mall close, we have Forest Parkers that lose their jobs,” he said.

Living Word, Joseph Center by the numbers

Living Word reported $23.9 million in total assets during the 2015 tax year, which is the most recent year for which full data is available, according to ProPublica's Nonprofit Explorer.  

David Lowenthal, partner at Plante Moran, who prepared Living Word's taxes, said Living Word earned $749,081 from its Christian book store that year. No employees or salary information is listed on the return. 

During the 2015 tax year, the Joseph Center reported $1,320,948 in total revenue, with the majority — more than $1 million — coming from private contributions and grants. That year, the business school received $80,000 in government grants and $947,596 in private gifts and grants. 

The Joseph Center generated $1,196,882 in total expenses that year, with the majority — more than $801,000 — coming from staff salaries and benefits. Thirteen employees and 97 volunteers are listed on the tax return; Kim Clay, director of communications, said employees could be professors and administrators. The total allotted for the 13 employee salaries was $557,856 that year. 

"A volunteer could help with classes in terms of registering students who come in, helping out volunteers; there are a lot of ways to help out," she said. 

The tax return did not list the salaries of any employees. It only offered a list of "officers, directors, trustees, key employees and highest compensated employees" which consisted of six individuals. The only one who worked full-time and took a salary was Vice President Deloris Thomas, who earned $180,806.

Bill Winston was listed as president, working eight hours per week; Ivy Bennet, secretary, worked five hours per week; Belinda Whitfield, treasurer, worked five hours per week; Lawrence Bettendorf, director, worked six hours per week; and Shalita Williams, controller, worked five hours per week.

Forty students enrolled in two, nine-month, in-campus courses that year; 43 students enrolled in online courses at the Joseph Business School. Tuition from these students totaled $252,120. 

Nona Tepper