MILWAUKEE – If you’re ever lucky enough to hear one of Reverend Robert Bell’s sermons at the Life Church Milwaukee Campus at 5511 West Burleigh, it’s clear the spirit touches him.
When Reverend Robert Bell stands before his congregation on the northwest side of Milwaukee, he has a message for members of the congregation, but the preacher also has a backstory that is far from pristine. A good student in primary school, the 45-year-old ended up joining a gang around the age of 14.
“They all knew I was this innocent child,” Bell said. “I didn’t even fit in, and they knew it. One night I went out with them. They were going out for a robbery, and I went with them.”
Bell got away with it, or so he thought.
“(The police) came the next morning and knocked on the door,” Bell said. “I thought he was my friend from school. I opened the door and the police were everywhere. I ended up going to Ethan Allen School, which is, well, it was a center for juvenile detention.”
It was hardly a place of reform.
“It was crazy in there,” Bell said. “I became someone else.”
When he came out, it was pretty much the same.
“I got deep into the gang,” Bell said. “I started drinking more, going to parties. From an early age, around 15, 16, I was an alcoholic.”
There was no one to notice, no one to help – not even his mother and stepfather who, at the time, had their own problems.
“A lot of physical abuse happened with my parents, a lot of alcoholism,” Bell said. “I never met my biological father, and that hurt me a lot.”
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This injury led to more anger, more aggression, more run-ins with the law, and more time behind bars.
“Man, we were out of control,” Bell said. “I saw no way out.”
Bell said he “can’t even count how many times he’s been to jail. You might be wondering how this innocent kid ended up with all this? Bell showed us where his story began in the northern neighborhood he grew up in. There were always parties in the house and he lived right next to a liquor store.
“They stopped selling alcohol because we drank a lot,” Bell said, half-jokingly. “We used to go to sleep with guns, man, because we were always in love with someone. Someone always hated us. We always slept with guns in the house.”
Bell described a time when things seemed hopeless.
“I was stuck,” Bell said. “I saw no way out. I thought I was going to die.”
Standing in the area that was once her home (it has since been demolished), FOX6’s Mary Stoker Smith asked Bell if it was symbolic, in a way.
“No,” Bell said. “When I see this today, what I see is that I’m so far from this.”
Through the chaos and the constant police presence in the area, there was a glimmer, a sign that he could turn the script around.
“I felt this burning sensation in my heart. I was like that,” Bell said, both hands in the air. “There was a gospel channel. It was like, this man preaching and everything. I put the cigarette down and the beer, and I went like this. I put my hands up in the air, and I I was like, I said, “Father, I hear you talking to me. I said, ‘But I don’t see a way out. I never saw a way out. I needed your help.”
This simple navigation of the canals led him to the District School of Ministry in Milwaukee. Five years later, he became an ordained minister with a passionate purpose.
“The young men in this town are deciding to put God first, and we’re giving them something to do,” Bell said.
You will find Pastor Bell every Wednesday during the Life Church Youth Outreach Program.
“The point is that we try to help other kids, healed and broken,” Bell said.
It is an opportunity to take children away from the streets, to help them feel positive and capable of achieving their dreams.
Faith holds Bell down. Hope for children, especially those who may find themselves in trouble as he once did, keeps him going.
“I never want to go back to that person again,” Bell said. “If I’m coming back, it’s just to help someone. I don’t want to go back to that neighborhood mentality anymore. I believe when we decide to put God first, things change.”
And Robert Bell is living proof of that.