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Effective Compassion: Carried on to completion - S3.E9

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WORLD Radio - Effective Compassion: Carried on to completion - S3.E9

Spiritual support for inmates is just as important after their release as it is behind bars


Participants and volunteers gather for breakfast at Restoration Outreach of Dallas. Photo by Leigh Jones

Jonathan Thompson grew up going to church.

THOMPSON: My mom, she raised us, we she took us to church all the time. And throughout my teenage years, I had still went. So it's not that I didn't know God. And it's just that that's not the lifestyle that I was wanting. It's like the prodigal son.

Like the prodigal son, Thompson eventually came to his senses. But it took a while.

THOMPSON: At a young age, I started smoking weed, hanging out, just wanted to be cool. … I think the first time I ever smoked weed, I was probably between 11 and 12 years old. And it led to being when I was in high school doing methamphetamines and cocaine in high school and drinking and the you know, they just following the whole crowd, which ended up leading me going to the penitentiary.

Thompson was 30 years old when he arrived at the Hutchins State Jail in 2018. Even though he was locked up, he still managed to get in trouble.

THOMPSON: I found myself doing the same antics in prison that I was using out here.

Smoking cigarettes, weed, and K2—a synthetic form of marijuana. That’s when he had his prodigal son moment.

THOMPSON: But I told the Lord, I said, Lord, if you get me out of this, if you get me out of this situation, I'll never go back. I'll serve you the rest of my life.

Not long after that, prison officials gave Thompson a new dorm assignment.

THOMPSON: And they put me into a dorm where these guys were having Bible study every day. They were sitting down reading the Word of God challenging each other in their everyday walk, challenging to read the word out loud. And so I fell into it. I was like, Lord, this is where I needed to be.

Like many inmates who meet Jesus behind bars, Thompson got plugged into an intensive discipleship program. He was studying the Bible, growing in his faith and learning how to live it out.

That kind of evangelism and discipleship forms the foundation of prison ministry behind bars. But those spiritual supports are just as important for inmates transitioning back to the free world. Unfortunately, they’re much less common.

From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion.

I’m Leigh Jones.

SPONSOR SPOT
Support Effective Compassion today at wng.org/donate. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast/.

AUDIO: Singing [hold for a bit then fade under]

Every third Saturday of the month, Restoration Outreach of Dallas hosts a breakfast for former inmates and ambassadors. That’s what the organization calls its volunteers.

The meeting starts with worship. And the songs about freedom in Christ … really resonate. The men and women lifting their hands to the heavens, eyes closed, feel the full weight of the burden Jesus lifted from their shoulders.

AUDIO: When I was your foe… [bring singing back up for a few seconds then fade into next clip]

After worship comes testimonies. Anyone’s allowed to share, but the men attending their first Saturday breakfast get special treatment.

AUDIO: Clapping, cheering. …

This man—Doug—spent the last 30 years in prison. He’s only been out for a few weeks.

AUDIO: I am truly blessed. Because out of all the places I could have went, I believe this is the place God wanted me to be.

Hallelujah! Amen! [clapping]

1-2-3 Welcome home!

Jonathan Thompson has been out for just over two years. But he often takes the mic to offer some encouragement to the new arrivals.

AUDIO: Man, I don’t ever plan on speaking, but God always drops a word on my soul. And grace is what he said. [Amen] Grace. … I got out in 2019, December of 2019 and beginning this year, I am now the owner of my own company. [clapping] … Not only that, but a year ago, almost a year ago, I was married right here, with my lovely wife and our children. And that’s only through God’s grace because if it was up to me, I would have been somewhere else. … It’s only through God’s grace that we’re even allowed to stand and proclaim his word so that other people can learn what his grace really, truly is. His grace is love. [Amen]

Thompson’s journey began with his new dorm assignment and the cellmates who invited him to join their Bible study.

THOMPSON: When I got there, was only two of them, then I then I sat down. And then I would didn't want to because they were challenging me, I really grew up with a hard time reading, especially out loud. But they were challenging me, hey, look, you got to read, man, you got to read it. This is what you need to read. And we're reading the Word of God out loud. And that really helped me grow me in that situation, too. So it was just divine intervention.

Not long after that, Thompson signed up for classes through Restoration Outreach of Dallas. Everyone here calls it ROD.

When he got out, he went to live at one of ROD’s transitional houses.

THOMPSON: We have a house manager. We have rules we have to abide by. And it's nothing that's unaccomplishable, you know, we can gain anything. And every, all the rules that ROD has set for us is only to benefit us later.

Rules about keeping the house clean, living in peace with others, and saving money.

THOMPSON: When I left the program, I had upwards of $9,000 saved up. Yeah. And so it, at the time, it was just like, Oh, but I want to get this and I want to get this. And pastor’s like, but do you need it? Like, let's talk about this. When you're looking back, you know, and when I left, I was like, wow, this is when I seen how much I really had saved up. I'm like, This is what this was for.

Jeff Parker, director of Restoration Outreach of Dallas

Jeff Parker, director of Restoration Outreach of Dallas

ROD’s goal is to set former prisoners up to succeed on the outside. And that involves much more than money management.

PARKER: Discipleship is the biggest part of what we do.

That’s Jeff Parker. He heads up ROD Ministries.

PARKER: The one reason why our aftercare program works is because those men are not coming home to strangers.

The first time he visited a prison, in the mid-1990s, was for a Bill Glass Weekend of Champions. It’s a nationwide evangelistic outreach program.

PARKER: And the moment I went into prison, the number one concern was what happens to these guys when they get out of prison? So that's kind of how I got started in prison ministry. And it was at one of those Weekend of Champions that a guy introduced me to ROD ministries. They had just gotten started, probably about a year, about a year before.

ROD’s work begins on the inside with a series of four, 12-week classes. The first one, New Beginnings, introduces the basic tenets of Christianity.

PARKER: From New Beginnings, we go to New Foundations. New Foundation goes a little deeper into the theology of who God is, who Satan is, sanctification, justification, it kind of deals with all of those theological terms.

The third class, Parker compares to a seminary-level course. The men read two books by Neil Anderson: Victory Over The Darkness and Bondage Breaker. The last course is called Abiding Fathers.

PARKER: Because most of our men are fathers or will be fathers, and have never been trained to see or hear how a Biblical father, his roles, his responsibilities in the household.

While they’re taking the courses, the men in the ROD program are also working on what Parker calls an exit plan. Where are they going to stay? What are they going to do for work? What do they need in terms of support?

PARKER: Most of the guys come into our aftercare program, and that's where the rubber really meets the road, when they come into the aftercare program.

RICK: Hi, my name’s Rick

AUDIENCE: Hi, Rick.

RICK: You know, next month, I’ll be going on two years with ROD Ministries.

[Cheering, clapping]

RICK: That’s not really a clapping kind of event because I’ve had this opportunity seven times before. So, I’m a real slow learner.

[laughter]

Ricky Christopher has been to jail eight times. His first arrest? On his 18th birthday. Forty-five years ago. His last arrest … in 2000.

He got out in 2019 and came straight to the ROD Ministries aftercare program. During the Saturday breakfast testimony time, he talks about how much his two years at ROD have changed him.

RICK: This is such a great place to practice good stuff. I have patience today that I didn’t use to have. I still get irritated, but I don’t act out on it. And for the guys that live with me who think I’m obsessive about things now, it used to be worse. It really did. I have a cat now.

[laughter, clapping] …

RICK: I went and spent $87 to have a cat fixed yesterday. I walked out of there like the proud father, right?

[laughter, clapping]

RICK: So, that’s big people stuff, as my sponsor used to tell me. Big people stuff. It really is. [fade under next graph]

During his last stint in prison, Ricky realized something had to change. But he didn’t know how.

RICK: I had been affiliated with AA and NA, off and on a long time. I had put together nine years clean once, and then six years clean, and anything in between all of that. But it scared me because my history showed me that I would go back.

Ricky asked his parents for help getting him into the prison’s faith-based dorm—mostly so he could get out of the general population, where the inmates were constantly fighting. But as soon as he got to the new dorm, he sensed a difference.

RICK: They weren't fighting. They weren't. They were trying to act like they were changing their lives. And so I ended up sitting down there for 23 months. And before I realized it, I had something I had changed inside of me. I was started feeling guilty for things I did wrong.

During his time in the faith-based program, Ricky attended Bible studies and went through ROD’s four classes. He says he doesn’t know exactly when it happened. But at some point he realized he had started to believe all the things he was hearing.

And the habits he developed on the inside stuck with him when he got out.

RICK: I mean, because when you come out, after you've been doing it for three years, every day, every morning, you wake up, get your cup of coffee and open your Bible. That's what I did.

NEWSCAST ABOUT LOCKDOWNS

Ricky got out just as the pandemic was gaining steam. So for a while, he and the other five men living at the ROD house had nothing to do but study the Bible and eat. He recalled looking out the window at eerily empty streets.

But when the world started to open back up again, Jeff Parker put him to work in his landscaping business.

RICK: There's just not many guys that want to sit on a tractor or mower for six to eight hours a day. And that's where I'm the happiest. That's when I get my serenity. That and at the lake. I talk to God and we we just talk.

Today, Ricky manages that landscaping business. And he serves as a house manager at one of the ROD properties. Now that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is starting to welcome volunteers back to the prisons, Ricky plans to sign up to help teach some of the ROD classes.

RICK: I can't imagine not being around the men that I'm around today, that loves God. I'm the can't imagine going to some of the meetings that we have, that are from people from rod ministries, and from outside people, police officers, parole officers, contractors, people is still struggling in our addictions and everything I can't imagine not having them in my life today.

Restoration Outreach of Dallas provides a lot of practical help for the men in their aftercare program. Help getting documentation, like a driver’s license. Healthcare coverage. Mental health support. And of course, a job.

But discipleship is the thread that runs through it all. And it starts in the houses.

Here’s Jeff Parker again.

PARKER: In the mornings, in the homes, the guys wake up, and they have to do devotions together in in the homes. We as a staff spend times in the homes, they have to have a personal Bible study, they have to have a study where they all come together.

Although all the men have professed faith in Christ and gone through ROD’s program on the inside, they still struggle with life on the outside.

PARKER: We have a house meeting called ‘Where you at?’ where all the guys sit around, and it gives them an opportunity to be open and honest about what they're dealing with. We invite the community in, so we have community leaders that come in and sit down with these guys. And the beauty of that, these guys get to see, man they're about as messed up as we are. And we all can need can use a little help.

ROD has three houses in the Dallas area, with varied levels of structure and oversight.

PARKER: So every man go through the ROD 1 house, as they come home from prison. If they stay with us longer than six months, they can transfer from the ROD 1 house to our stage two home.

The third house is for men who’ve transitioned out of the program but need short-term help. Maybe they’ve lost a job or are having a hard time finding a place to rent because of their record.

One of the men who spoke on Saturday had been out for more than 20 years. He has a job as a security guard. But he still regularly has landlords turn down his rental applications.

Most of the men coming out of prison have had some kind of job readiness training. But that doesn’t mean they’re ready to work. And this too is a matter of discipleship. That’s why Parker started the landscaping business.

PARKER: When I get out there with the men and work along beside them, that's big time for these guys. First of all, they don't think that you know, this guy with a PhD is going to get out here and dig with us, is he? But, but that's what Jesus did. He was on the fishing boat. With the fishermen's. He was there with the tax collectors. And so the success of our ministry is because of the attention to discipleship.

The men also do community service work. And that helps Parker to evaluate their natural skills and inclinations. Based on that, he recommends them for jobs at several area employers who are willing to hire former prisoners.

One now employs three men from ROD.

PARKER: The first guy he hired for me, it was an old guy who had been away over 30 years. Never worked a computer, let alone seen one. …  But I knew that he had a strong work ethic. I knew that if you give him something to do, he's gonna complete the task no matter what. …  Well, they hired him, he said, We'll give him a go. Three months later, he was the number one guy in the company. Wow. He's an order puller, he has surpassed everyone in the company. And now he is the Employee of the Month for the second time.

Parker tells the men they are keys that are unlocking the doors for others coming behind them. It’s a role they take seriously.

PARKER: Now I have companies calling me saying hey, do you have any more guys that can go to work? So we have 100 percent employment in the ROD homes now. So all the guys are employed.

Discipleship through work is the foundation of another Texas-based ministry: the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. PEP for short.

Bryan Kelley is its CEO.

Bryan_Kelley: PEP uses the vehicle of entrepreneurship for transformation in the lives of inmates who desperately want to turn their lives around, they just don't know how and they don't have the necessary community around them to help them think through what that might look like.

A lot of prisoners don’t have what you’d call a robust resume. At least not a legit one. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have work experience.

Bryan_Kelley: Not surprising, I don't think the men and women inside of prison from their very survival on the street, they know a lot about business, they know about supply chains, and risk management, profit margins, and marketing, sales, reading people, you know, and and one thing that really strikes me about them is they recognize opportunities.

PEP teaches inmates how to build and operate a successful, legal business. They write a business plan, learn how to pitch it to potential clients and investors. They go through Toastmasters and take seminars on etiquette. They read books familiar to any business major: Good to Great, True North, Who Moved My Cheese, Rich Dad Poor Dad, Leadership Code.

The volunteer teachers are all highly qualified.

Bryan_Kelley: So we bring in a group of successful business men and women, you know, people who've been successful in business and successful in life, to mentor to guide to consult, to advise and counsel and encourage the man and help them think through critical thinking steps to get to the vision of the dream that they want to do, whether that's their business, or just in life.

PEP doesn’t advertise itself as a Christian organization. That’s partly to encourage inmates who might not consider a faith-based program to give it a try. And it’s partly to avoid any future discrimination from the secular, government prison system. We’ll explore that more next week.

But Christ is the foundation of everything PEP does.

Bryan_Kelley: The men in prison are typically in a silo, they're doing things on their own. They don't have anybody to show them the way. And so discipleship is what we need. We do discipleship, but it's just couched in business.

The volunteer mentors build relationships with inmates based on business plans, marketing advice, and product development. But the end goal is to point them to Jesus.

Bryan_Kelley: And when the participant says, Why are you doing this? And then you have the credibility to say, you know, why? Because Christ did something for me, I do it for you, too.

And those relationships don’t end at the prison gate. The discipleship continues when the former inmates become small business owners.

Bryan_Kelley: There's a guy right here in Houston, Rodrick, who started a metal fencing business several years ago, and and you know, through grit, determination, perseverance, resilience, he was doing about $250,000 in revenue a year about three years running, you know, probably at the break even point he's making a little bit of money, but he's struggling, he's grinding, he's got grit.

Through PEP’s Second Chance lending arm, he applied for a $14,000 loan so he could buy a used forklift. He thought it would help him be more efficient and increase his productivity.

Bryan_Kelley: And so we did a deep dive look at his business plan and him and realized this guy worth gambling on. And so we gave him the money but we also gave him a mentor who would walk with him and really scrub his business. And his concept about priorities and what needs to take place, where his highest margins were, how he's investing his time. The next year, he went to million and a half in sales, a 6x increase. Not because of the forklift, but because of community leaning into him, discipling him through business, made all the difference in the world.

Almost 3,000 men have been through PEP’s program. More than 600 of them have started their own businesses. All of PEP’s graduates have a job within 90 days of release … and nearly all are still employed 12 months later.

Just 8 percent of them go back to prison within three years of their release.

Bryan Kelley can rattle off the program’s stats with confidence, but that’s not why he’s convinced the program works. He has first-hand experience.

Bryan_Kelley: I got out in 2014 after doing 21 years, eight months and one day.

Kelley grew up in Kansas, in a working class family where alcoholism ran rampant. He started drinking when he was 12 years old. But he was smart, and a good athlete. So, after graduating from high school, he got a track and field scholarship at a Division II college. But he preferred partying to going to class and dropped out after just one semester.

After that, he took a job in Dallas and fell back into the party scene. Eventually, someone introduced him to cocaine and his life quickly unraveled. He lost his job and his friends. He spent all his money on drugs. The last time he met his dealer, he took the only thing he had left: a knife.

About a year later, a jury convicted Kelley of murder and gave him a life sentence. At that time, the Texas prison system calculated life at about 60 years. But Kelley had the possibility of parole.

Bryan_Kelley: So I became parole eligible after six years on a life sentence for murder. However, you know, the parole board was gonna end up treating that as as the heinous crime that it is. And so I started serving a series of set offs we call them, basically parole denials. I ended up going up for parole 13 times.

During that time, Kelley stayed busy.

Bryan_Kelley: I earned a bachelor's degree, I became a college tutor, I was teaching men to read, I was sponsoring men in AA, I was a peer educator in prison, teaching the population about diabetes, TB, sexually transmitted diseases, fostering a conversation around prison rape and trying to make our environment better.

Then, he got recruited to be a peer educator for PEP. He loved everything about the program, but he wasn’t eligible to go through it himself because it’s a pre-release program. And he was still technically serving a life sentence.

Bryan_Kelly: So I transfer to a different unit I was up by San Antonio just cleared the 20 year mark, came up for parole for my 13th time and I met with a parole commissioner. And the conversation completely changed. He told me what it was gonna be like for me on parole outside. And I was sitting there going, oh my gosh, this guy is telling me I've made parole. No way. And at the end, he said, son, do you have any questions? I said, Yes, sir. I've got one. He said, What is it? And I said, will you give me parole next year? And he looked at me and he said, Are you asking me to stay in prison for another year? I said, well, yes, sir. He said why? I don't understand. Why would you do that? And I said, I'd like to go through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, PEP, and develop a business plan that I've got, but the only way I can do it is if you give me a hard release date next year. And he stared at me, Leigh, which for I think, was 60 seconds without blinking. And finally he said, let me look into that. And he gave me exactly what I asked for. I bargained for an extra year in prison to go through the program that I now lead.

Kelley started working as a mentor for PEP 30 days after he got out of prison. Four years later, he became its CEO.

PEP was just one of the programs Bryan Kelley went through in prison. But, of course, his transformation started with the gospel, shared by a pastor volunteering with Kairos.

He started going to church and Bible studies. But he attributes his spiritual growth to one-on-one discipleship.

Bryan_Kelley: A man stepped up, a fellow inmate, who had been a traveling evangelist prior to prison. He fell from grace and ended up doing some time. But he stepped up and discipled me for 10 years straight. Every morning, we lived together and we worked together, every morning, we would start out the day with 30 to 60 minutes of the fundamentals of Christianity coming out of the Bible, and how we were applying that in our lives or failing to apply those in our lives sometimes. And so you know, when the student’s ready the teacher appears. And he was so fundamentally strong, he understood doctrine and theology and he passed that on to me. And that made all the difference in the world.

Kelley says above all else, whether it happens through business or some other vehicle, that’s what the men coming out of prison need most.

Bryan_Kelley: When somebody gets repeated grace, somebody invests in them, walks with them, is patient with them, perseveres with them, until they can walk on their own, and then pass it on, that’s what discipleship is all about. What's missing is long-term discipleship.

[Singing… I lean not on my own understanding, my life is in the hands of the maker of Heaven] [fade]

Back at the Restoration Outreach of Dallas breakfast, Jeff Parker is preaching from Luke 15.

PARKER: The Bible says in Luke 15, verse 11: And he said, a man had two sons… [fade under]

The parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s an appropriate story for his audience.

PARKER: Not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country and there squandered his estate with loose living. Anybody know anything about loose living?

[murmurs]

PARKER: We can testify. All the loose livers raise your hand so I’ll know which section I’m talking to.

[laughter]

Of course the men in the ROD program raised their hands. But that’s not what Parker was going for.

PARKER: But if we are true to ourselves, there is this tag that we put on men and women, and we call them offenders. And I’d like to take that a step back, saints. All of us are offenders because we have offended God. Had it not been for his Son, Christ Jesus, who have saved us. What I’m trying to say is, no one in here have any room to point the finger at anyone else because we are all offenders, save the grace of God.

Now I’m going to ask my question again since we broke the ice. Are there any loose livers in the house?

[laughter]

There we go! Come on. [clapping, fade]

Parker wants Christians to make a connection between their own spiritual restoration and the work God is doing in the lives of former prisoners. Too many don’t.

PARKER: I hear this all the time. Well, you know, some churches have a special call for prison ministry. And I'm thinking, show me that in the Bible. Now, I've got a pretty good handle on the Bible. But I've never seen a special call for prison ministry. It's just a phrase we use. We just doing life with these brothers.

And Parker admits, sometimes it’s messy. But that’s just life.

PARKER: I wished I could tell you every guy come out hits the narrow road, and boy, we got it good. Some of our guys, we have to love them through some relapse. Some of our guys, we have to love them through some getting incarcerated again. And they always say, you know, can I come back? And I say, we leave a light on for you. Come on home. Yeah.

About 50 percent of men and women coming out of Texas prisons go back. But only 10 percent of the men who’ve been through ROD’s program end up behind bars again.

For the last nine weeks, you’ve heard story after story of ministries that are making a difference in the lives of prisoners, would-be prisoners, and their families. These stories are powerful, but are they more than just anecdotes of success? How can we know prison ministry really works?

Next week, we’ll find out.

Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Leigh Jones, the producer. Paul Butler is our technical producer, and Rich Roszel is our engineer.

SPONSOR SPOT
Support Effective Compassion today at wng.org/donate. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast/.

North Korea is one of the most secretive, closed-off countries in the world, but World Help has a network of trusted partners there with 20+ years of experience smuggling Bibles and other aid to believers. These partners use donations to print, ship, and secretly distribute Bibles as well as food to people who have been desperately praying for help. And since North Koreans share their Bibles with trusted family and friends, each copy impacts around five people. Click here to learn more and donate.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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