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Wilmette Mourns the Loss of a Community Champion: Tom Behrens, Founder of The Night Ministry

Reverend Tom Behrens, a longtime Wilmette resident and Founding President and Former CEO of The Night Ministry, was a beacon of hope for Chicago’s most vulnerable citizens. His unwavering commitment to serving the city’s unhoused and marginalized communities has left an indelible mark on the city of Chicago and beyond.

By Jeff Axelrod
April 22, 2024
Tom Behrens wearing a raincoat
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Tom’s journey with The Night Ministry began in 1976 when a coalition of diverse congregations entrusted him with the task of reaching out to individuals on the streets of Chicago. His mission was simple yet profound: “to be present to them, to be available, to listen.” This ethos of empathy and understanding became the cornerstone of The Night Ministry under his leadership.

As the organization’s first employee, Tom pioneered street outreach in Chicago, holding office hours from the trunk of his car and visiting bars and all-night diners. His encounters with the city’s unhoused population raised his awareness of the gaps in available services, particularly in the areas of youth shelter and healthcare.

In the late 1980’s, Tom played a pivotal role in advocating for new state legislation that allowed nonprofits to operate group shelters for unhoused youth. This significant change in policy led to the launch of The Night Ministry’s first youth shelter, providing safe refuge for hundreds of young people and their children each year.

Tom’s vision also led to the creation of The Night Ministry’s Outreach & Health Ministry Program in the early 1990s. The program, which began by offering mobile healthcare services from a recreational vehicle, has since expanded to provide free medical care, case management, and resources like food and clothing to neighborhoods across the city.

Tom’s tireless efforts have transformed countless lives and set a standard for compassion and advocacy in The Night Ministry’s work. His spirit will continue to guide the organization as it carries forward his mission of providing human connection, housing support, and healthcare to those who are unhoused or experiencing poverty.

Duayne Meyer, Tom’s minister to the Illinois conference of the United Church of Christ, recalls him as a “quiet, unassuming presence who had a knack for bringing people together around a shared concern for those whom most of us go out of our way to ignore.” His work with homeless persons, those suffering from addiction, teen runaways, people with HIV Aids, and sex workers around Chicago is a testament to his profound impact.

As we mourn the loss of Tom Behrens, we also celebrate his remarkable legacy. His passion for helping others, particularly our unhoused and marginalized neighbors, has left an indelible mark on our city. To say he was “a good and faithful servant” would indeed be the grandest of understatements.

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