The Church of the Second Chance: A Faith-Based Approach to Prison Reform
Q: Tell us a little about your background.
A: I was born in 1952. My parents owned a small grocery store in the Norview section of Norfolk, Virginia, which they converted to a snack bar and hot dog stand in 1958. They made it into a kind of hangout for the local kids—not quite like the TV show Happy Days, but not too different, either. There were pinball machines and pool tables and signs on the wall forbidding gambling and cussing. I remember my mother breaking up many a fight with a dose of cold water! Looking back, I may not have continued the family business, but I have been able to carry on the family legacy.
Q: How did you do that?
A: Because my parents' restaurant was a place of safety, a refuge, and that's what we provide at Onesimus House, too. We aid ex-offenders in making a transition from prison to the community by providing them with a place where they will not feel threatened, where they can feel the love of God and the care of other people.
Q: But you didn't jump straight from your parents' hangout to running a halfway house for newly released prison inmates, did you?
A: Oh, no! I went to college, graduated in 1974, and planned to go into teaching. When that didn't work out, I sold insurance from 1976 to 1982. Also, I started working with kids from difficult backgrounds in my spare time, when I became a deacon at Norview Baptist Church in the late 1970s. These weren't abused children, you understand, but they came from homes with neglect, substance abuse and alcoholism. We took them camping, to baseball games and to the beach.
Q: How did this lead to prison ministry?
A: In 1980, I started volunteering at the Norfolk City Jail with the Gideon Ministry. At first, I just handed out New Testaments in the cellblocks, but then the jail chaplain asked me to teach a Bible study class. The response from the inmates, who were mostly younger men, was really encouraging to me. And, having worked with eleven- and twelve-year-olds at my church, I couldn't help but see that many of the prisoners at Norfolk City Jail were not much older—eighteen or nineteen—and from the same neighborhood. It was a kind of an epiphany for me: I saw the connection between the younger and the older kids.
Q: Did you experience this insight in connection with any particular inmate?
A: Yes, actually. There was an eighteen-year-old accused murderer in the jail at that time by the name of Billy, and in his face I could just see the face of an eleven-year-old boy named Jeff who came to our church. And Billy also happened to come from a neighborhood near Norview Baptist Church. So I couldn't look at him as someone to be feared and ostracized, because the connection between that eighteen-year-old felon and the children from our neighborhood was so clear, so visible to me. That recognition melted the fear away.
Q: And it also got you hooked on prison ministry?
A: Yes. I began with one Bible study class per week, then did two, and finally taught four or five classes per week—still as a deacon at my church. But that set up a conflict for me: I just loved what I was doing at the jail, yet I also felt I ought to be out selling insurance. So by 1981 or so, I knew I had to make a decision, and I started talking to my pastor and my wife and the manager of my insurance company. In fact, that manager was the one who had led me to the Lord and had discipled me; he was a very devout Christian businessman. Everyone agreed, so in 1982 I became ordained as a Baptist minister, and we incorporated Onesimus Ministries.
Q: Onesimus wasn't originally intended to be a halfway house, was it?
A: No. Initially, Onesimus was meant to facilitate the ministry to the inmates in Norfolk City Jail, at the invitation of the sheriff. That's what we did from 1982 until 1984, until I got fired.
Q: You can get fired from being a prison minister?
A: Oh, yes—if you give an interview to the local TV station without asking the sheriff's permission! Well, it all worked out for the best. For the last six months or so before I was invited to leave, I had begun to see the need for some place for released inmates to go to when they left jail or prison. All we had at this time in Norfolk was a homeless shelter! When the sheriff kicked Onesimus out of his jail, my organization was out of a job, in a way, and this was an area where we could do useful work.
Q: How did you get started?
A: In the summer of 1984, I got a call from an Onesimus board member whose church had a piece of property in the country that was vacant and that could be used for housing. We were able to use it rent-free, but we had to maintain it and pay property tax. That's how we operated for just about ten years, until we bought the property in the mid-1990s.
Q: You mentioned a board of directors; who funds Onesimus Ministries?
A: We have maybe two hundred individuals and forty or so churches who have supported us financially for the last twenty-five years. Initially, we were completely funded by donations, but once we started actually housing ex-offenders, we could charge them a fee. That was $35 per week at first, and now it's $85 per week. The fees meet about two-thirds of our budget, which is now roughly $125,000 per year. Sometimes we also get grants for specific projects, like a new roof or a used van. But we accept no federal or state money at all. I'm an old-fashioned Virginia Baptist, I believe in the separation of church and state.
Q: What does it cost to house one man for one year at Onesimus?
A: Just over $3,000 per resident. That same offender who would cost the taxpayer over $20,000 per year if he were incarcerated in a state penitentiary. Plus, our guys are gainfully employed, paying taxes, restitution, court costs and contributing to the local economy.
Q: Give me a sense of the growth of Onesimus Ministries over the last quarter-century.
A: We began with one resident, a man named Al who was a nonviolent alcoholic convicted of theft. We had only the one house at that time, with room for eight to ten men. By 1994, the main house had been expanded to hold fourteen or fifteen men, and we had a townhouse in Virginia Beach with three or four more residents. In 1999, we acquired a second townhouse, adjacent to the first. Today the main house holds about eighteen men, the two townhouses hold about seven, and we are moving into a new house in Norfolk that will hold four more.
Q: Give us an overview of what you do at Onesimus House.
A: We provide room and board and transportation, as well as assistance in reintegrating into the community. When I say "we," I primarily mean Bob Crown, who is the on-site house manager. He works with the new arrivals until they are employed and manages the day-to-day activities, like transporting residents to and from work, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, church, and appointments with Probation and Parole Officers.
Q: You mentioned AA; do you provide any treatment for substance abuse at Onesimus House?
A: Not treatment, per se, but during the last ten, fifteen years we have moved into doing on-site testing for alcohol and drugs. That protects the integrity of the program and helps residents maintain their sobriety. During our community meetings at Onesimus House, we talk about drug addiction and alcoholism, of course, but we rely on local social services and the community for counseling and therapy.
Q: Roughly 80% of prison inmates have substance abuse problems, so you must see a lot of that in your residents, too.
A: Yes. So many of them struggle with freeing themselves from drug and alcohol addiction. They stand on the threshold of freedom, but they're unable to walk through. For some reason, there's a fear of living clean and sober.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: The years of addiction foster a lifestyle—a destructive lifestyle, but a lifestyle nevertheless. With this lifestyle comes a sense of community, and a purpose in life: to score drugs and get high. Punishment and the lack of parole are not real issues, which is why the abolition of parole in 1995 was such a useless idea.
Q: What do you mean?
A: Well, let me tell you a story. In 1994, the recently elected Governor of Virginia, George Allen, came to Portsmouth, to conduct public hearings with his committee to abolish parole. I attended one of those hearings, and while I was sitting there, listening to the governor, I received a message on my pager to call Onesimus House.
Q: That must have been a really urgent message, to interrupt you at that hearing.
A: It sure was. I got word that one of our residents, who has a long history of drug addiction, had not come home. And I remember thinking about the futility of the whole process: here was the governor advocating abolishing parole and enacting mandatory sentences in order to deter crime, and somewhere in the area, there was one of my residents relapsing, fully aware that a relapse would terminate him from the program and ultimately place him back before the judge.
Q: Did this man risk returning to prison?
A: Of course. At his sentencing, the judge had suspended a twelve-year term on the condition that this man complete the Onesimus House program. But even with these inevitable consequences, it was not enough to deter him from relapsing, which is indeed what happened. I doubt seriously if the outcome would have been any different if his sentence had excluded the possibility of parole.
Q: Some would say that this man merely got what he deserved. He knowingly broke the law, so he and others like him don't deserve parole.
A: That's basically what Governor Allen told the General Assembly in 1994. He said that the legislators had to make a choice: to have compassion for the victims of crime, or the criminal. He implied that one cannot do both, but that is the exact opposite of what Jesus taught! When the Pharisees discovered Christ consorting with sinners and other less desirable individuals, he responded to his critics by saying, "Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:13). Everybody on this planet is eligible to receive God's mercy and compassion.
Q: They might be eligible to receive God's mercy, but not necessarily society's.
A: Why should we be any less merciful and compassionate than God? Is that what we, as Christians, really want to do—to be less than God? But even if you do not want to be a Christian, you still have to temper justice with mercy for practical reasons.
Q: Please explain that further.
A: The number one priority of the Department of Corrections is to maintain public safety. This includes maintaining secure facilities, as well as providing community supervision of released inmates. Obviously, an ex-prisoner's success in the community will depend heavily on the preparation he has received while incarcerated—things like drug therapy, education and job training. And his success also depends on the support that is available once he is released—support like that which we provide at Onesimus House. We make a great contribution to public safety by making sure released inmates stay alcohol- and drug-free, and by finding work for them.
Q: That is indeed one of your strong suits, isn't it—finding jobs for your residents?
A: Oh, yes. All of our guys are employed within ten days of arriving at Onesimus House. We have a large support base through our churches, and we have a reputation with local businesses. If it's one of our guys, he's okay—he'll show up for work! And some of our graduates have formed their own businesses and now hire our people regularly.
Q: What kind of work do Onesimus residents perform?
A: Oh, just about everything. They have laid utility lines and storm drains throughout Tidewater, installed ceilings in Harbor Park, finished the interior of the Norfolk Southern office building, salvaged aircraft hangars at the Naval Air Station, built bulkheads in some of the finest Virginia Beach neighborhoods, built and painted custom homes, repaired tug boats and welded in local shipyards, laid the foundation of Larkspur Middle School, and even laid the foundation of Indian Creek Correctional Center, ironically enough. One of our former residents even crafted and installed a spiral staircase in the home of a Virginia Beach judge. He had spent time in the state penitentiary and the local jail, most of his problems stemming from his drug addiction.
Q: How do you find candidates for Onesimus House?
A: I go to jails and prisons and interview them. Then I look at their institutional records and listen to what other inmates, counselors, in-prison job supervisors and chaplains say about them.
Q: What else do you do at Onesimus House, apart from researching potential residents?
A: In the beginning, I did everything: I was at the house every day, all day, and most evenings, too! I was the one who found the men jobs, took them to work, and drove them to AA at night. Then, in 1986, we hired our first on-site resident, Dan Berrios. He attended Regent University during the day and handled a lot of the day-to-day stuff in the evenings. That allowed me to take a part-time job at St. Bride's Correctional Center.
Q: How did that come about?
A: In 1987, I got a call from Reverend George Ricketts, the executive director of Chaplain Services of the Churches of Virginia, which provides prison chaplains for the Virginia Department of Corrections. He had been given my name by Dr. John Craven, who had been my mentor; he had brought me through the ordination process at my church. Reverend Ricketts invited me to work part-time at St. Bride's as a chaplain, which I still do. And in 1997, I also became Chaplain Supervisor of Chaplain Services.
Q: What do you do with Onesimus nowadays?
A: I do a lot of fundraising, talking to men's and women's groups at our churches, trying to get help for the House and the prison ministry.
Q: That can't be easy work!
A: That's true. For the most part, the Church today does not seem interested in prison reform, as organizations like the Christian Coalition have endeavored to steer Christians to supporting candidates with strong anti-crime platforms. Unfortunately, America's war on crime has evolved into a war on human dignity.
Q: What do you mean by "a war on human dignity"?
A: Let me give you an example: recently, a father mailed his incarcerated son a letter written inside a blank church bulletin. Along with the letter, he enclosed a bookmark and gospel tract. These items were sent back undelivered because they violated a new directive governing inmate mail! Or take the cutbacks in food budgets: the state is now spending less than $2.00 per inmate per day on food. That's less than $2.00, for three meals!
Q: Why do you think there is so little sympathy even from Christians when they hear of things like this?
A: Because it's so easy to hate someone who is different and unlike us. We tolerate inhumane prison conditions because we think that those convicted of serious crimes are not like us, but different. That's why I always tell those church groups to whom I speak, "There is someone present in this room today who has a loved one in prison!" I remember that after one of these presentations, the president of the Women's Missionary Union shared with me that her son was in a Texas penitentiary. The truth is that prisoners are no different from us. They are our children and our neighbors. They are us.
Q: Actually, colonial Virginia was in large part settled by released convicts who had come here from England, wasn't it?
A: That's right! In 1641, Governor William Berkeley of Virginia even wrote a letter to officials in London, complaining about the large number of ex-prisoners immigrating to Virginia. He warned that if it didn't stop, Virginia would become a penal colony. Some things never change!
Q: Well, even if Virginia hasn't changed much from 365 years ago, have you noticed a difference in the type of residents who have come to Onesimus House over the last twenty-five years?
A: Oh, yes. In the early years, they were all nonviolent offenders. Today, we have about 60% substance abusers and 40% sex offenders. We took the first sex offender in the late 1980s, a young man named Rusty J. who came to Virginia from Arkansas by way of the U.S. Navy in Virginia Beach.
Q: What was he like?
A: His main issue was paranoia. This was before the days of internet sex offender registries, you understand, but he still thought that everyone knew about his past. One day, he saw another resident whittling a stick, and Rusty thought the guy was implying that he was a "tree-jumper"—prison slang for rapist.
Q: How did he progress at Onesimus House?
A: Well, most of our people stay six months and then transition to one of our less-structured townhouses. There they can stretch themselves a little bit, but they still have the security of knowing that we're there to help them. Rusty, on the other hand, stayed about twelve months at the main house, working construction and doing fine. Then he got his own apartment and quickly relapsed with drugs. He came back to Onesimus for six months and struggled a lot with depression. I'd say Rusty was "high maintenance"—he needed a lot of attention.
Q: Like those kids from dysfunctional families at Norview Baptist Church in the late 1970s?
A: Yes. Or the kids at my parents' restaurant. Rusty was a threshold case for us, our first "high risk" case. That prepared us for taking more sex offenders later.
Q: How do you determine which sex offenders you'll take and which you won't?
A: We look at the nature of the offense, and the type and number of victims. We won't take someone with more than one victim or someone who attacked a stranger, because we don't want a predator re-offending in our community.
Q: How did you develop these criteria for sex offenders?
A: Through careful study of other programs. But, you know, there really were no models for us when we started in the mid-1980s. There was no textbook on how to set up a halfway house! Of course there were large, sophisticated, very intensive operations like the Delancey Street Restaurant in San Francisco. But I didn't have the resources to what they do at Onesimus House.
Q: How successful are you at preventing new offenses by your residents?
A: Generally speaking, the ones who go back to prison or jail are those who fail a drug test or fail to maintain their sobriety. There have been some new offenses committed, but in almost every instance, we ourselves—Onesimus House—were the victims. For example, a man took one of our vans and used it to go and buy drugs, or another resident came back drunk one night and started a fight. There have been five or six such cases in twenty-five years.
Q: And did you take back any of the men who committed offenses against Onesimus House?
A: (Long pause.) Yes. Some of them we got out of jail ourselves and returned to the House. Others, of course, went back to prison. It all depends on the circumstances.
Q: Do you remember one particular case that sticks in your mind as an especially successful reintegration of an ex-prisoner—a kind of Joseph, who ended up running all of Egypt?
A: Yes—one of the first young men I met at Norfolk City Jail, in fact, in 1980 or '81. Randy was sentenced to eight years for manslaughter. After he arrived in prison, he decided to write a letter to his former employer, from whom he had stolen prior to killing someone else. In the letter, he apologized for stealing, listed everything he had taken, and promised to pay his boss back.
Q: Sort of like the Letter to Philemon, in the New Testament?
A: That's right; in fact, Randy used that as his model, because we'd studied it in one of our Bible study groups. His employer was so impressed with that letter that he visited Randy in jail and then wrote to the parole board, to tell them that he would give Randy his old job back if he were paroled. The parole board granted Randy first parole, and he went to work for his old boss. Over time, he was given more and more responsibility, and when his employer retired, he sold the business to Randy. He is now known in Norfolk as a very successful businessman and a very active church member. No one knows his past.
Q: Randy's employer clearly forgave him that theft. Does forgiveness also play a role in your work at Onesimus?
A: Forgiveness is within the domain of the church, so we try to operate Onesimus House as a place where grace and forgiveness can be obtained. After the resurrection, Jesus told his disciples in the upper room, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23). So we try to practice grace in our response to failure, because we understand that there will be failure and relapse.
Q: Tell us more about the place of grace in your work.
A: Grace is the one thing that makes our faith unique, the one thing that can overcome any resistance. And we Christians have the patent on that; we have the market cornered! Yet we fail to implement grace in our dealings with others and even with ourselves. I think this is one of the great failures of Christians today.
Q: What do you mean?
A: God told the apostle Paul, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). But we modern-day Christians no longer lead with our weakness; we are no longer cognizant of our wounds. We have become self-righteous, believing that our own hard work and our powerful connections have brought us our achievements. We have become the haves of this world, with little regard for the have-nots for whom Christ died.
Q: Can you think of an incident involving one of these have-nots who obtained God's forgiveness through grace?
A: Yes, a former Onesimus resident named Michael. He was a man tormented by depression, tragic relationships and alcohol. I had to expel him from Onesimus House because of his failure to stay clean, and some years later he committed a horrendous crime.
Q: What did he do?
A: On his birthday, he and his girlfriend murdered four people in a Virginia Beach bar. These people were their friends and coworkers! A few years later, I visited him on death row, and he wrote me a couple of letters afterward. I remember the gist of his letters was his quest to find forgiveness from God and from the survivors of his crime. Sadly, I was of little help to him. I couldn't provide him the answers he sought because I had too many questions of my own.
Q: What kinds of questions?
A: Was I unable to respond to his letters fully because of my unwillingness to forgive him? Or was it more complicated that that? Was I feeling a sense of guilt or responsibility, since I was the one who had originally made a place for him when he was released from prison? And had I ignored my own practice of grace when I booted him out of Onesimus House for his relapse? Did I dare ask myself what role I had played in these tragic events? As I said already, I was of little or no help to this man who was struggling with his own guilt. Fortunately for Michael, he was able to find some closure.
A: For one thing, he turned down the option of lethal injection, choosing the severity of the electric chair instead. But even more importantly, he realized that the key to his closure involved the forgiveness of the victims' survivors. Miraculously, the authorities agreed to arrange for him to call the wife of one of his victims, the owner of the bar. He was able to communicate to her his deep sorrow and regret, and even more amazingly, she was able to communicate forgiveness.
Q: And did that incident answer some of your own questions?
A: Oh, I don't know. I later toured the death house at Greensville Correctional Center and sat in the electric chair. Michael was the last person who had occupied that chair prior to my sitting in it. Crazy!
Q: Do experiences like this one ever make you feel discouraged in your work?
A: Sometimes, sure. The prison environment can suck the life out of any normal, decent human being. But I try to find strength and courage by connecting with members of my community.
Q: Who are they?
A: Many of them are Department of Corrections staff with whom I work day in and day out, or with whom I have worked in the past and still maintain contact. These are people who trust chaplains and don't mistrust me simply because I befriend inmates. And I find community with my fellow chaplains and fellow members of Virginia CURE. [Interviewer's Note: Virginia CURE, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, is a prisoner advocacy group.] But even though I feel a deep connection with them, I also still feel powerless sometimes. Maybe fear and disillusionment can be overcome by community, but there is so much work still to be done.
Q: You named the place where you do most of your work, Onesimus Ministries, after the runaway slave in the Letter to Philemon. Is that Scripture the one that really inspires your work with the halfway house?
A: Sure, but there are so many others, like Matthew 25. And I keep running across new ones! The last lectionary reading our Bible study group in the prison read, for instance, was about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead—and I noticed something I'd never seen before. When Christ calls Lazarus out of the tomb, Lazarus doesn't have a choice—the Son of God has brought him back to life, so he's going to come out. But then Jesus says to the onlookers, Take the burial cloths, the wrappings off him!
Q: So they have a choice—whether or not to unbind Lazarus.
A: That's right! Those onlookers don't have to take those burial cloths off Lazarus. And I saw that this is what I've been trying to do for the last twenty-five years or so: to take the wrappings off men coming out of prison, out of the concrete tombs of our jails and penitentiaries.
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