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ROCKFORD — J.R. Flannigan has a surefire pickup line.
"I tell them, 'Hey, do you know somebody cares about you? I don't know you, but I care about you.' And then I let them go about their day.
"And you know what? They're blown away."
The line isn't meant for picking up women. Instead, Flannigan routinely delivers the message to local youths in hopes of being a force for good in their daily lives.
He said the two-sentence icebreaker works because it is uttered with sincerity and consistency.
The national Christian-based organization has an office at at 1288 S. Alpine Road and a goal of reaching at-risk youth and raising them to be lifelong followers of Christ.
Life lost to violence
Flannigan's own life was forever changed when he witnessed the death of a child he did not know in front of a church in Chicago.
"I saw a youth get fatally shot," the Rockford native said. "I was standing outside in front of a church, and it just triggered something in me. That youth wasn't the only youth going through something like that."
The experience, Flannigan said, fueled his passion for helping young people.
During his six-year stay in Chicago, he attended the Moody Bible Institute, worked for Project HOOD (Helping Others Obtain Destiny), a not-for-profit organization striving to end the cycle of poverty, violence, and incarceration. He also met his future wife, D'Lisa.
Flannigan, a father of two children, is the grandson of the Rev. Norris Flannigan of Ephesians Missionary Baptist Church in Rockford.
J.R. Flannigan, a 2005 graduate of Rockford's Berean Baptist Christian School, and his wife returned to the Forest City in 2016 to serve as pastor and First Lady of Jerusalem Baptist Church.
Flannigan and his congregation made headlines in 2017 and 2018 for their "Bury the Violence Walk," featuring church members toting an empty casket from the 301 Kline Avenue church to Auburn and Central. "Just so people could see how severe the violence was," he said.
Heart for God, young people
Around the same time, Flannigan began to work part-time with the Juvenile Justice Ministry program and got to know Haddon Anderson, executive director of Stateline Youth for Christ.
Anderson described himself and Flannigan as "kindred spirits with a heart for God and a heart for young people in our city."
Flannigan resigned as pastor in 2020 during the outbreak of the pandemic, which he said took a toll on his life.
"I lost my grandmother, my aunt and a cousin to COVID in 2020," he said. "I had never lost any of my close family members at all, and I just didn't know how to grieve. It just became overwhelming. I felt like I couldn't lead until I was healed mentally."
Free from his pastoral duties, Flannigan signed on full-time to work for the Stateline Youth for Christ as director of the Juvenile Justice Ministry program.
Anderson was eager to have Flannigan working alongside adolescents who may feel overlooked and disconnected from positive adult role models.
"J.R. is very proactive in meeting young people at kind of their lowest point and becoming that mentor to them," he said. "J.R. can make a young person feel loved and also challenge them in their life and decision-making at the same time."
It usually starts at McDonald's
Juvenile Justice Ministry has been working for years with children in the Winnebago County Detention Center and children serving probation.
Because of the dangers of COVID-19, outreach work in the county detention center has been curtailed and more effort is going toward prevention and reaching out to at-risk children before they enter the court system, Flannigan said.
Flannigan's week is filled with one-on-one mentoring sessions, a chance for a child to open up and talk about his or her challenges at home, in school and elsewhere. He and a team of volunteers also host once-week group sessions.
In a less formal settings, Flannigan also makes it a point to take a child out to lunch.
"At first I'll let them choose," he said, "and it's usually McDonald's."
Subsequent lunches, Flannigan said, are to eateries that are out of the child's comfort zone.
"I want to stretch their minds," he said. "You would be surprised at some of the places these kids have never been to or things that they have never did."
'Hey, I care about you'
Flannigan describes his work with children as being "on the frontline."
Most challenging he said is first getting a youth who has been hurt or neglected to let his or her guard down and then to be receptive to the fact that they can have a life free of violence and gang influences.
"I got a young man who had a wall up, but he was fascinated that every time I talked to him, I encouraged him," Flannigan said. "I never cussed him out, and I can cuss pretty good if I want to. You know what I mean?
"But I encouraged him and he was shocked. And now, he has no wall. ... He was the toughest kid I had.
"I think it was just consistency. Just telling him, 'Hey. I care about you. I care about you.' I think that starts a lot."
This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Rockford native returned home to have an impact on at-risk youth