Today’s blog post is about a person’s unique and unconventional ministry. However, it’s important to let you know that there is mention of gang activity, gun violence, and human trafficking.
I found Jesus in a counselor’s office at the age of 38. I grew up in gang ravaged South Central Los Angeles in the 80’s. While I wasn’t involved in gang activity, all my friends were. Over the years I saw 17 of my friends die because of their lifestyle. My best friend D’ante was one of the most hardcore gang members I’d ever met but he found Jesus when he was in jail and got baptized. The day he got out of jail we threw a party for him at his mom’s place. D spent the whole day trying to tell us about Jesus and that Jesus was transforming his heart. We all kind of laughed it off and told him that he’d be back doing what he always did in a few days. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to find out. D’ante was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting in front of his mom’s house at 11:47 pm that night. He was 3 feet away from me and bled to death in my arms.
Sights and situations like this became far too common; this was the last straw. I moved my wife and kids to the SW Suburbs of Chicago. I had years of undiagnosed and untreated trauma and mental illness in my life; that is where a counselor named Joan Guest came into my life. She was a beautiful soul who clearly KNEW Jesus and shared him in the kindest, most gentle, and non-threatening way. At the end of our first session, I was preparing to leave and Joan said “Oh, Chris, I always like to offer to pray for my clients before we wrap up.” I rolled my eyes and said “Joan, if you think it’ll help, go right ahead.” Joan prayed with intention in a way that I had never heard someone pray before. I grew up in an Irish Catholic home and this was something completely different. I can honestly say that this was when I knew God was REAL and that God wanted to transform my life like D’ante’s.
That was it, I went to church the next morning and ran 100 mph toward Jesus. I was looking for any opportunity to serve. I wanted to live like Jesus, and I wanted to share him in a non-threatening way with others because I wanted everyone to feel what I was feeling. I went to Haiti, I served at the food pantry, did homeless outreach, mowed yards for the elderly and single moms, really anything I could find to do. I loved doing all of that, but I really wanted to know “Why am I here?” So, I started praying intentionally. I said to God, “I’ll do whatever you want me to do with whatever time I have on earth.
The answer I got was simple and clear… “Go do what you love and do it to help people who need a second chance.” I’ve been a tattoo artist for 29 years and I truly love creating art to illustrate people’s stories in tattoos. However, I have had a lot of Christians give me a very hard time about it and tell me I was going to hell for tattooing. I questioned the calling for 6 months but God’s voice was clear, and it hit me like a wave…I could start covering and removing tattoos for people coming out of gang life like D’ante was trying to do! It was that day on October 1st, 2011, that the INK 180 MINISTRY was born!
We started the work in my basement studio in our house which is a bit ridiculous. I didn’t know these guys; I didn’t know their status but I trusted God and have always been kept safe. I gave an update at church about 6 months into doing the work of INK 180 and was asked to present it to the Dept. of Homeland Security Gang Unit in Chicago. As I drove up for the meeting, I got a call asking if their Human Trafficking Task Force could sit in on the meeting. To say that my life was turned upside down at that meeting is an understatement. They educated me on this horrific reality and showed me pictures of branding tattoos forced on trafficking victims to mark them as “property.” I had no idea this was happening in our country and was immediately sickened by it. They asked if we would be willing to expand the scope of our ministry work to help cover or remove these tattoos for trafficking survivors…what a simple YES that was.
I sit here in my shop reflecting on 10 years of God’s blessings in this ministry and in my life. It’s funny to think about those who told me I was going to hell for doing what I do, but I think they’re going to be surprised when they see me in heaven someday. Ministry is wherever we are, using the gifts that God has blessed us with to make a difference in the lives of people in need. I feel like every time I cover tattoos that I’m sending God a thank you card for the gift of being able to do this work. I continue to learn more about Jesus every day and what I do know is that there were a lot of people who came against him as well. I am a part of a band of misfits who may not look like most Christians or do conventional types of ministry, but I’ve never tried to fit into a box.
Since 2011 our work has expanded to help former gang members, sex trafficking survivors, domestic violence survivors, self-harm survivors, and young people going to serve in the military. We have been able to help over 10,000 people, free of charge, for almost 11 years. All of our supply’s costs are covered by donations from people and churches that believe in second chances and God’s grace. I will do this work as long as my hands continue to work or until God gives me a different calling. I truly love the opportunity to do what I do and share my faith through my actions and attitude with the people we work with. We’ve baptized over 3,500 people, given out free Bibles, do street outreach work in the South Side of Chicago, conduct social media safety classes, and assist in the investigations of human trafficking to locate missing children both here at home, and across the country.
So I ask you, “Who wants to be conventional anyway?” Jesus wasn’t.