For their faithful service to the most vulnerable in Wheaton, and for their commitment to Christlike community living, Chris and Carlene Ellis Ellerman are the 2023 Alumni of the Year for Distinguished Service to Society.
Words: Jenna Watson ’21
Photos: Tony Hughes
Chris ’75 and Carlene Ellis Ellerman ’77
“When I was 23 we started a home where we took in teenage boys,” Carlene Ellis Ellerman ’77 recounted. “We were foster parents. At 23 and 25.”
Chris ’75 and Carlene Ellerman were recent Wheaton College graduates and newlyweds, and now foster parents to five teenage boys. Living just down the street from the College, the Ellermans and two friends started a group home that would become a staple in one of the City of Wheaton’s most thriving ministries and in their family life. They didn’t know that at the time: It was just the type of radical hospitality and love for their local community that has always characterized their lives.
Chris and Carlene met in the lobby of Fischer Hall when an R.A. introduced them, but their friendship was given space to deepen through their involvement in the International Students Club. Chris, from Vancouver, Canada, and Carlene, originally from Jamaica, did not think twice about dating interracially. “But it was sure a big deal on campus,” said Chris.
It was the early seventies, not long after interracial marriage was legalized in the United States. “At the time,” said Chris, “there were only about 20 African American students on campus.” “Twenty, max,” Carlene added.
By and large, the couple felt supported by their friends and the administration. Only a few students challenged them. “But shortly after we started dating, we decided that we could either respond in love or we could respond negatively,” said Carlene. “We chose love.”
This attitude of working across different beliefs would characterize their ministry and family life over the years. Their life together contained many forms of Christlike witness, and their relationship was consistently one of them. “For me, our marriage across race and culture was a witness,” said Chris, speaking of the union across differences found within the kingdom of God.
Although it was their first testimony together, it was not their only or last. While Carlene was finishing her degree at Wheaton and Chris was pursuing graduate studies in social work from George Williams College, they were already talking about where their ministry work would take them.
“By that time, I was passionate about a calling to home missions and a holistic approach to doing mission work among the most vulnerable,” said Chris. The question was: where?
That’s when Chris connected with Outreach Community Ministries (OCM), an organization newly formed by the Wheaton Ministerium, which comprised Catholic, Protestant, and evangelical churches. OCM was a ministry responding to the needs of teenagers in Wheaton and neighboring suburbs without homes or stable family lives who had found themselves in situations of addiction, poverty, risk of school dropout, and other challenges. With the support of 21 churches, OCM started out with two part-time workers, but within two years, services came to a halt. “By the end of ’74, both workers and 15 out of the 21 churches were gone,” Chris said.
Rather than close down, OCM decided to give it one last shot with a Wheaton graduate returning to the area with a master’s degree in social work: Chris.
Although Chris had his eyes initially set on urban missions in Chicago, following the footsteps of his friend and role model, Wayne Gordon ’75, he and Carlene felt God steering them toward suburban work in Wheaton through this internship. So Chris jumped into OCM’s 300-squarefoot office on Main Street, proposing a new business plan with an executive director and a sustainable fundraising model. Not long after, he was hired as that executive director, and within a year, three ministries were up and running.
First, there was the street outreach that was the staple of OCM’s model, inherent in its name. This was as simple as hanging out at the places where local teens congregated, like a 24-hour coffee shop on the corner of Geneva and Schmale. Second, there was the transitional home that Chris and Carlene ran alongside two college friends, Randy Ellison ’77 and Paul Holmes ’77. Third, there was a summer youth employment program for at-risk teenagers. It started with 14 students in 1978. Within five years, there were 70.
“The Ellermans knew from the beginning that this ministry had to become bigger than them,” said Vanessa Roth, COO of Outreach. “They were always doing it for the Lord.”
Although Chris was the official face of OCM’s ministry, anyone involved knew that Carlene was the community builder in the neighborhoods. In the first years, she was “right in the thick of things,” as mother to the teens in the group home. When she and Chris moved out of the transitional home down the street to start their own family, in a sense, their group home ministry never ended. They went on to have four children of their own, but there were only a handful of years when those kids did not grow up surrounded by teens or neighbors who needed a place to stay. One time, a single mother needed a temporary home for two weeks. She ended up staying for five years.
“For 40 of the last 46 years of our marriage, we have hosted somebody else as a guest in our home,” Carlene said.
While her home was the site of her most ongoing ministry, Carlene’s service extended into the surrounding neighborhoods too. She threw block parties to build relationships with neighbors. She hosted progressive dinners, Easter egg hunts, and Bible studies. She served faithfully at the elementary school down the block, increasing its attention to practices of diversity and multicultural celebration. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was after 13 years of this faithful community service, and at what was supposed to be a small gathering of women showing support to Carlene, 50 women showed up. Each one had been touched by her ministry—that is, touched simply by the way she lived her life.
“Carlene’s impact in the community, in a very quiet, loving, strong way, has been very potent in ways that are more subtle,” said Chris, speaking of how Carlene’s ministry complemented OCM’s. As they reflected together, this type of life is created by simply living with hands open in surrender. “It’s living your life for Christ but living it outwardly. It’s asking the question, ‘What do you have for us to do, Lord? How do we use our gifts and talents to make a difference in our community?’”
Just as this humble surrender and creative stewardship characterized Carlene’s ministry, so too did it distinguish Chris’ leadership at OCM. During his 44 years as executive director, Chris was frequently recognized for his innovative approach to suburban ministry. In 1992, he was selected as Social Worker of the Year by the Illinois chapter of the Association of Social Workers for the creative ways he brought urban ministry models into the Wheaton area.
“Over the years,” said Chris, “everything I thought I was interested in doing in the city, we’ve come to do in the suburbs.”
Although he describes this in easy terms, it was no easy task and had little precedent, according to Vanessa Roth, the current chief operating officer of OCM (now Outreach). Chris recognized that setting up centralized services and expecting those in need to come to them would be ineffective. Rather, the services had to be brought to the neighborhoods where they were most needed.
“Nobody was doing it at the time,” said Roth. “But now we’ve got five of those neighborhood resource centers, and other organizations are realizing how effective a model that is.”
The model, Chris explains, is drawn from the settlement house famously founded by Chicago’s own Jane Addams in 1889. What was novel was the way Chris brought it into suburbia. And yet, Chris and Carlene asserted, the City of Wheaton could not have been more receptive, thanks in part to the presence of Wheaton College.
“One of the things you need to know about the City of Wheaton,” Chris reflected, “is that it’s been one of the most generous, most diverse, most compassionate communities in the county for a long time. Most people don’t know it, but there are numerous group care homes here. Wheaton is a community that has always been wide open to creating opportunities for others, and that has a lot to do with the compassion of people who have settled in Wheaton after graduating from the College, and their calling to change the world.”
It is thanks to this broad community support and to the Ellermans’ faithful presence in the community for so many decades that OCM has been able to put down deep roots with lasting impact.
“I think of Outreach Community Ministries as a mature ministry,” said Dr. Philip Ryken ’88, President of Wheaton College. “Over time, their impact has spread in part because they’ve noticed all the needs the community has and tried to meet as many of those as possible.”
Now one of the most thriving ministries in DuPage County, Outreach serves around 4,000 individuals annually, with nearly 1,000 volunteers and strong church support. It offers services in crisis intervention, counseling, case management, transitional housing, summer school, mentoring programs, youth leadership, job assistance, and more.
“The Ellermans knew from the beginning that this ministry had to become bigger than them,” said Roth. “They were always doing it for the Lord.”
Yet Carlene and Chris still remember the early days, just out of college, when their most important job was ministering Christ’s love to teenage boys—not always an easy task.
“We had one boy, David, who would bring his friends over and say, ‘This is my mom and dad. They’re Jesus freaks, but they’re really nice,’” Carlene remembered with a smile. Years later, one Mother’s Day morning, the doorbell rang. It was David, no longer a teenager, coming back to thank them. He was now a Christian. Another boy, Carlene recollects, was particularly difficult for her to parent, yet he was the one who stayed up all night when Carlene went into labor, making sure she was alright. These boys, and the young women, single mothers, and others whom the ministry later expanded to serve, were the faces and names of OCM’s early days and the ones still quietly carrying Chris and Carlene’s impact now wherever they go.
Seeds this deep, sown with such care, will not go to waste. For the public ministry of OCM, the private ministry of community living, and the shared ministry of their faithful marriage and family life, Chris and Carlene have impacted the City of Wheaton in ways that will not be soon forgotten.
“Their work has had an impact over many decades,” said Dr. Ryken. “They have also built something that’s built to last. Their legacy will continue for many years.”