Interrupted by Grace
Corey Buchanan was only 17 when drugs and gang activity culminated in him attempting to kill a police officer. While awaiting trial, Buchanan’s life without Jesus was interrupted by God’s grace in a prison cell. Now, 15 years later, a pastor, a congregation, a prison, and a community continue to be interrupted by that same grace through his passionate ministry.
Buchanan is now a commissioned pastor at First Reformed Church in South Holland, Illinois. In addition to the justice and mercy ministries he oversees there, Buchanan is also chaplain and associate executive director of Chicagoland Prison Outreach (CPO), the ministry that reached out to him in prison as a broken teen with a dismal future.
“Part of my story is that I grew up in a household without a Bible,” says Buchanan. “We didn’t go to church, and it was almost as if God didn’t exist. So God had to show up in my life, and he did that in many ways. But Satan showed up too.”
In prison at 18, after a year of watching other inmates struggle for their lives, Buchanan began to see that his own life could get a lot worse.
“With a broken heart, I got on my knees and told God he could do anything he wanted to with my life. My heart changed. I wanted to know what God’s will was, what he wanted of me, and how he wanted to shape my life.”
For reasons he doesn’t entirely understand, Buchanan didn’t receive the sentence the law demanded for his crime, which would have been as many as 80 years. Instead he received six years, and was released on parole after only three. After his release, he became a youth director, then pursued a bachelor’s degree in biblical exposition and pastoral studies at Moody Bible Institute. He became a chaplain for CPO, and in his senior year at Moody, asked to do an internship with Matt Waterstone, senior pastor of First Reformed, which was also involved with CPO. Buchanan and Waterstone still serve together six years later.
“The congregation fell in love with Corey,” says Waterstone. “He has been a cornerstone in our efforts to be a multiracial, multigenerational congregation. He has the unique ability to genuinely relate to an 80-year-old lady, 55-year-old banker, 45-year-old iron-worker, 35-year-old nurse, wandering teen, ex-felon, and anyone in between, regardless of color or age or education.”
The two pastors are close and profess deep respect for one another. Both admit to the challenges of multiracial, multigenerational ministry and have tackled them together. While Waterstone mentored Buchanan through his internship, early ministry, and commissioned pastor process, Buchanan has mentored Waterstone too—to the point where Waterstone has now lead worship in a maximum security prison, something he never dreamed he would do.
“He has made diversity less scary, challenged us missionally, and stretched us in efforts of evangelism,” says Waterstone.
Buchanan compares multicultural ministry to marriage.
“The Bible makes a correlation between the church and marriage,” he says. “There has to be some compromise, some give and take. We sometimes don’t do justice in learning to know one another, knowing needs and meeting them, being ready to adjust to them. That’s the hard work, and I don’t know if we have that figured out, but that’s the work we join in with God.”
Buchanan recently chose to move into a rougher neighborhood as a way to live out his call. There, in his downtime, he walks the street, prays, and builds relationships.
“It can be easy to get comfortable, and the thing that challenges me is that there are so many people who don’t know God. Looking at culture and community, the universal church, I feel challenged to say God pushes us into uncomfortable places. My challenge is not to be so comfortable in my small realm of life that I forget the bigger picture.”