Roger Nelson


Age: 57
Shot: Ronald Nelson (father) Age 50

Case summary: As the family left Roseland Christian Ministries on March 17, 1985, a gunman walked up, forced them into a parked car, demanded their money and eventually shot Ronald Nelson in the side, then fled. Case status: Clarence Hayes, the gunman, convicted of murder and six counts of armed robbery. Sentenced to life without parole. 

Roger Nelson stands in the parking lot of Roseland Christian Ministries on a bright spring day, remembering. 

“My father, my fiancé, my mom and I had just left the service, “ he said. “It was St. Patrick’s Day, a beautiful spring day.  My parents loved Roseland. It was a wonderful service, I remember watching my dad shake Pastor Tony’s hand after the service and telling him, ‘I feel so refreshed.’”

As they left the Ministry, the street was busy with people, music, neighbors barbequing. Suddenly, a man appeared in the parking lot, and forced the family into the car at gunpoint, demanding money. 

“He’s crouching next to my dad, who’s in the driver’s seat, with the door open, and with a gun to his side. I am sitting behind my father, in the back seat of the car. I was the only one talking, trying to be polite, calm. I thought he would just run off with our wallets. But what’s going through my head is, ‘How am I going to make this right when all this is over?’” 

Donna Van Zanten, the pastor’s wife, and her son, Kent, came out of the church and walked toward the car. A moment later, they found themselves ordered into the backseat as well. They surrendered their wallets to the gunman, who only grew more agitated.

He’s crouching next to my dad, who’s in the driver’s seat, with the door open, and with a gun to his side.

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“He saw that my father had a checkbook in his suit pocket, demanded to know why he hadn’t given him that. And despite our answer, without any provocation, he suddenly shot my father in the side, then ran that way.” He points down the street. 

Roger looks at Roseland Christian Ministries, a solid brick building with a cheery red sign, at the corner of Michigan Avenue and 109th Street. Roger is calm, eerily so, as he describes the day his father was murdered.

“My immediate impression was that I had just stepped into the pool of victims of gun violence, and it’s a really black pool. I am one of the few white faces. I was also aware that this whole thing was a knotted mess. A tangled knot of addiction, joblessness, violence, etc. It never felt personal. It’s a knot that is so deeply tied, there’s not even one loose thread to pull, to start to unravel it. And I felt a deep sadness for all of us.”

Hayes was sentenced to death. That judge had never given the death penalty before, so the courtroom was packed.

“The place was electric,” he recalls. “His family was crying, other people were cheering. I felt alone. It’s a big pool, but it’s still just your story. Nine hundred people a year were getting murdered in Chicago at that time, almost twice as many as in recent years.”

The Nelson family eventually asked that Hayes be given life in prison rather than the death penalty, to avoid further appeals. “We knew what it had cost our family, and we just wanted to know that he wouldn’t inflict that pain on another family.” 

Roger came to Roseland Christian Ministries in 1981 as an intern. “I was always fascinated with the city,” he said. “I wanted to be an urban lawyer or an urban pastor. Maybe they both had to do with justice?” 

He fell in love with Roseland, describing himself as “a son of the congregation.” At one time he expected to become the pastor there.   “For me the gospel came alive here,” he says. In the early 80s, he remembers, “the kids would come flooding in after school, it was a community, full of energy. To me it felt like a home, family, friends, a sense of calling, a sense of place.”

Roger, his wife and family, eventually moved to Flossmoor, a nearby suburb. Roger pastors Hope Christian Reformed Church in Oak Forest. He’s still connected to Roseland, and to Pastor Joe Huizenga. The poverty and violence, he says, “doesn’t mean that God’s not present. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. And unjust death—well, God knows something about that.”