The air is humid with sweat, as 10 pairs of sneakers shriek and pound the court. On the streets of Jonesboro, Georgia, some of these men are drug dealers, addicts, and gang members. But at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, all that matters is how many minutes are left on the clock. The church started small with its basketball ministry, inviting men who played at the nearby public court—a hotbed for drug and gang activity. But word spread, and soon 60 young men began showing up every other Sunday night to play, socialize, and enjoy a meal.
Years ago, when the bank called to repossess Mt. Zion Christian Academy, the church’s K-12 school, no one knew its gym would someday house a thriving ministry. Due to the area’s changing demographics, much of the congregation had moved away, making it difficult to maintain the property. But those who stayed resisted foreclosure with lavish acts of generosity. Some donated house sale profits. Some spent hours walking through the woods to find pieces of metal to redeem for cash. Instead of boarding up, the church opened its doors to a neighborhood whose needs were growing more urgent by the year—a fact made plain early one spring morning in 2015, a moment Pastor Chris Reynolds remembers as a wake-up call.
It was a Sunday, and Reynolds was preparing for worship when his phone rang: A homeless man seemed to be asleep on the doorstep of his church. Several members had tried to wake him, but he wouldn’t respond. And that’s when they saw the gun. Reynolds was later stunned to learn that the man had walked miles to end his life in front of their sanctuary. “He could have killed himself anywhere,” says Reynolds. Not even 30 years old, this young black male was a casualty of the hopelessness of the area. That morning, as members walked into church past police cars and ambulances, it was clear something had to change. And weeks later, the open gym ministry began.
Among the regulars at the courts is Gordon Hutton—a former drug dealer and meth addict running the streets. But through relationships built at Mt. Zion, he eventually received the gospel and was baptized. Now, during open gym hours, Hutton oversees games and hangs out in the stands. He also leads a recovery group called No Masks and uses his small home restoration business to employ men who are ready to rebuild their lives. Once, Hutton offered a part-time job to a shy 20-year-old named Delaney, who had become a regular presence at the open gym nights. The two would talk, but Delaney held faith in Christ at a distance. Months later, when Hutton shared his testimony and presented the gospel at halftime, Delaney was there. He gave his life to the Lord that day, along with six other men.
“Basketball is a tool to tell you that Jesus loves you,” Reynolds says. “The appeal of a gang is, ‘They want me. They love me. They accept me. They’re gonna be here for me,’” he says. “The church is talking it, and the gangs are in the streets living it—but who’s getting the kids?”
For these young men, the open gym is a haven from the harsh realities of street life. But there is also an urgency to give them hope of a life to come. Weeks after Delaney trusted Christ as his Savior, he was shot five times in the chest and died. He wasn’t in a gang or involved in drugs; he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some people might ask whether basketball makes a difference. But for Delaney and others, this gym is more than a court—it’s the place where they meet Jesus.
Photography by Artem Nazarov
Pastor Reynolds's daughter, Dallas Hazelrig, tells the story of how she experienced the church's changing demographics growing up in “Faithful Through the Flight.”