The Discipleship House, a two-story brick building on Fillmore, had no room for Donovan Sanders when he moved in last year. So he slept on the floor.
Donovan knew he needed the shelter. He appreciated the community and the fellowship of Larry Hope, a Breaking Ground staffer who had moved in about a month before him.
There was no way he wanted to go back to the prisons where he had spent several years. That much he knew. So he stayed.
“I didn’t care” about sleeping on the floor, he says, “because the way I saw it, it was a perfect opportunity for me to get the things that I needed.”
For weeks, he stayed on the carpet in the second story of the house, eventually got a mattress, and when a room with a bed opened up, he moved in.
Meanwhile, Larry built into Donovan’s life, persistent in asking him what he needed, inviting him to weekly fellowship and just building a friendship.
“Anytime I can have a conversation, I do,” Larry says.
Last summer, Cotorey Seals, a Navigator, moved into the house with Larry, Donovan, and four other men, filling the house’s six bedrooms, two bathrooms, two kitchens, and a weight room, which has a poster of Tupac Shakur on one wall and a poster reading “John 3:16” on the other. The weight room is one of the biggest rooms in the house.
“Definitely, we fellowship over working out,” Cotorey says. “That’s the way we get into conversations and build camaraderie.”
In February, Larry took a six-month sabbatical, leaving the vision and leadership of the house to Cotorey, who felt called to urban ministry after spending his first few years as a Navigator on the campus of Kansas State University.
Cotorey says he feels kinship with the men in the house because of his own story.
“The things that I have been through have given me a credibility to enter rooms that other people may not be able to enter into,” he says.
Born in Florida with drugs in his system, Cotorey grew up in an environment in which his mother was in and out of incarceration and his father disowned him when Cotorey was nine years old. Three years later, Cotorey became entangled with the juvenile justice system because of an incident with a knife.
However, Cotorey had a foster family, and it happened that his foster dad was a pastor. God found Cotorey at age 14, and he has been a Christ follower ever since. Aside from a speeding ticket six years later, Cotorey never had any more issues with the law.
A student athlete who played four years of college football as an offensive lineman, he graduated from Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas, with a degree in biblical studies with an emphasis on Christian leadership.
“Because of the things I have been through, I can be a realistic example that you can overcome, you can persevere, and God is in your situation,” Cotorey says.
The decision to move from Kansas to Chicago and live at the Discipleship House proved a difficult one for Cotorey, but a necessary one, too.
“It was a denial of self,” he says. “It was a dying of self. In college ministry, everyone pats you on the back and tells you how good you are…”
“God was like, ‘If no change occurs, are you still willing to come do this for the sake of who I am?’ And I had to say yes, because God is enough. And these men are worth it because they’re made in God’s image.”
Cotorey has committed to two to five years of living at the Discipleship House and pouring into men who might have come from circumstances similar to his own tough upbringing. He envisions adding more structure to how the house is run, such as requiring weekly gatherings on Sundays to study the Bible and fellowship together. (Those gatherings are currently optional.)
“We want to see the Gospel reach the hearts of these men,” Cotorey says. “We want to be intentional with bringing the Word of God into their lives—whole life discipleship. This is called a Discipleship House, so we want to actually be a Discipleship House.”
The four men living in Discipleship House who are not Navigators receive a deeply discounted rent. Their circumstances range from re-entry after incarceration to drug addiction recovery to just needing roommates and a place to stay. Most of the men found the Discipleship House through such programs at Breaking Ground as the APL Teaching Factory and the Manufacturing Training Center.
Adam Smallwood encountered Breaking Ground as he recovered from a drug addiction. It all started with a knee surgery a decade and a half ago, when a doctor prescribed Percocet to ease the pain of healing. A fixation on Percocet led to a dependence on OxyContin.
Then one day, Adam obtained two bags of heroin.
“I had no idea how next-level it was compared to the medication,” he says. “I lived a secret, double terrible life. I put my family through pretty much hell, to try to maintain and fake it and still feed my addiction.”
Adam’s drug habit landed him in and out of jail for a few days at a time, like when he got caught buying dope, but he says he’s never had a long prison stint.
“I kind of got lucky that I never had major loss like I kind of felt I deserved at the time,” he says. “I definitely knew right from wrong. But addiction makes all that unimportant. You might feel bad, but you’re still going to do what you’re doing. That’s the nightmare of it.”
During his emergence from this nightmare, while Adam was in a recovery program at the Gateway Foundation, he found Breaking Ground.
Or rather, Breaking Ground found him. One of the instructors at Breaking Ground’s manufacturing program met Adam at Gateway and told him about the educational opportunity, to which Adam said, “I’d be crazy not to pursue that.”
Adam earned three credentials in the program, and when Breaking Ground found out he needed a place to stay, it offered him the building on Fillmore next door. He also works on maintenance and repairs for Breaking Ground.
“We all get along good,” he says of Larry, Cotorey, and his three other roommates. “They’re doing good things. It is like family.”
One of Adam’s roommates, Donovan, learned at age 9 his father had been murdered. His uncles told Donovan his father had been stabbed to death, his body found in an alley.
Three years earlier, Donovan’s mother had died of cancer.
“I grew up without parents,” he says, adding that even though his grandma helped raise him, he fell in with the Gangster Disciples when he was around 11 or 12, and they became his security, his family.
“I started doing drugs at the age of like 16, started smoking, started drinking, started popping pills.”
Donovan plowed through pills, cocaine, weed, and liquor, and when he didn’t have the money to buy those, he stole. He spent his teenage years in and out of facilities run by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, doing drugs and stealing things like gold chains when he was on the streets.
A couple of times, he got caught, and during a stretch in his 20s, he did two separate prison stints in connection with burglaries.
A year and half ago, Donovan got clean through a treatment program; after the program, he was sent to a halfway house; at the halfway house, he learned about Breaking Ground.
When Donovan arrived at Breaking Ground, the staff embraced him, and while staying at the Discipleship House, he continued in the ministry’s factory and manufacturing programs.
Now, Donovan has a full-time, tool-and-die job at Slidematic Products, which also is sending him to school for manufacturing technology.
“I got wiser, and I was sick and tired of the pain,” Donovan says of his ongoing transformation. “It was a choice I made that, to be honest, I feel like it was God. I just wanted to do better, I didn’t want to hurt anybody anymore. I didn’t want to hurt myself anymore.”
Written by Erin Chan Ding
Photo Credit Kristen L. Norman