To Restore and Redeem
There’s no denying the joy and laughter around a close community around a common meal at church. Friends and families gather together in faith and fellowship, enjoying one another’s company and swapping stories about their days. After dinner, everyone gathers for worship in the sanctuary. They sing, voices united in praise to God. A leader shares a sermon. The Holy Spirit fills the sanctuary; worshipers are edified by the word of God. At the end of the service, friends and family offer each other warm goodbyes until the next time they can gather together. The only significant difference between this church service and any other is the final farewell. While some make their way home, others make their way to vehicles that take them to correctional facilities where they stay until it’s time to attend the next worship service.
The weekly worship service is part of Redemption Missions, a fellowship of inmates, former inmates, their families, and other volunteers and worshipers. The project is a part of Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries (CJAMM), a faith-based nonprofit that seeks to break generational cycles of incarceration, addiction and parental abandonment. Redemption Missions focuses on supporting incarcerated adults by providing 12 step programs, cognitive behavioral therapy, peer education classes, and reentry assistance. The weekly worship, programs, and classes are hosted by Penn Ave. United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City. Keith Dobbs, executive director for CJAMM, said inmates feel comfortable in the Redemption Missions community in part because of the number of former inmates who, after their release, volunteer at Redemption Missions.
“The people that are doing the programming here have walked in the inmates’ shoes, so they understand the struggles and the challenges and the journey,” Dobbs said. “They feel loved and accepted.”
Once released, former inmates are supported through the provision of food, hygiene, clothing through the ministry and its partners. Redemption Missions also provides transportation assistance in the form of bus passes to keep people mobile. In the past year, 34 percent of those attending worship were inmates through the Department of Correction, and 220 bus passes were provided to those who have been released.
“I see over and over women and men who have been separated from their children because of drug and incarceration but now are able to sit together in church to hear God’s word spoken into their lives,” said Theresa Owens, a former inmate and long-time volunteer. “It makes a difference when you walk through the door and you can feel the love, the forgiveness and the acceptance; it builds self-esteem and confidence.”
More than a third of Redemption Missions’ inmates return to train as volunteer after release. Owens, who has been sober for more than 20 years, said it’s fulfilling to see someone’s life change and know that trained volunteers like her have been a small part of it.
“I know that God has brought me forward, and I really get to share that, you know, when you get out that there is hope,” Owens said. “You do not have to stick with that cycle of addiction. You can get away from it.”
Redemption Missions hosts both 12 step programs and classes to help inmates earn credit days which can help reduce their sentence. Classes include HIV/Sexual Health, Unlocking Your Thinking, Building Social Networks and Better Communication. Each class offers 10 credit days for inmates who complete the entire course. A 16-week anger management course offers 30 credit days. In all, an inmate can receive up to 70 credit hours by competing the classes offered through Redemption Missions.
Rev. Bo Ireland, pastor at Clark UMC in Oklahoma City and leader of the Lazarus Community, a ministry to provide housing and community to people without homes. Ireland said the partnership between the two ministries is a natural fit. Both ministries have similar covenants for those in their housing communities, and both have need for recovery groups and empowerment classes. The Lazarus Community has provided a worship leader with piano accompaniment for the Thursday worship service, and Ireland has been added the preaching rotation. He said the connection between the ministries is an example of how ministries can partner with one another.
“It is long overdue that we practice our connection inside of the UMC and outside, with partnerships that grow the kingdom of God,” Ireland said. “The Lazarus Community could have started their own recovery groups and worship service, but we are better together and more connected. There is no reason for us not to join with the work that Redemption Church is doing, and through this partnership we are able to bring residents and friends from Lazarus to experience this worship and recovery offering.”
Redemption Church, the mission’s weekly service, averaged 50 in attendance in 2021. Dobbs said that as Oklahoma’s pandemic restrictions loosen, the average attendance has begun to rise. He noted that one woman in incarceration stayed on a waiting list for more than three months to attend Redemption Church because she’d heard it was one of the better church services being offered.
In addition to providing a chance to worship with family and friends, Dobbs said that Redemption Church serves as a way to connect with potential candidates for the Exodus House, CJAMM’s temporary housing program to help formerly incarcerated people reenter society. Each apartment in the complex is underwritten and sponsored by a different church. Nearly 97 percent of former inmates who complete the program do not return to prison. Crystal King, herself a graduate of Exodus House, said the people at Redemption Church and Redemption Missions genuinely love the people who come through their doors.
“Whenever I started coming to Redemption, I was sober, I was loving the Lord, but I didn't have a foundation,” King said. “I was gonna go back to my little hometown, and probably go back to the same people, places, and things I had been at before. I think that at that point, my sobriety and my spiritual growth may have been threatened. Now nine years into my sobriety, it's different. I go home, I see my family, it's wonderful.”
King serves as the financial secretary for Penn Ave. UMC. She said when the pandemic hit, Redemption Missions had to adjust how it served its community as inmates were not permitted to travel outside of their facilities. It expanded its ministry with homeless people, and when inmates were permitted to return, the programs shifted how it offered its meals and programs to meet the needs of both volunteers and inmates. Dobbs said that initially there was a lot of uncertainty about how the pandemic would affect the ministry and whether families would be able to connect the same way as before.
“When we came back, God worked, and as we continue to do our thing, our families came back,” Dobbs said. “It took a little bit of time, but families started coming back, and we started reconnecting and restoring relationships. And now it's like we've always been; the shutdown was just kind of a blip on the radar.”
Dobbs sees restoration as a common theme in the work of Redemption Missions, especially when it comes to restoration in family relationships. He said the ability to reconnect outside of a prison setting is a valuable aspect of reconnecting inmates and their families.
“The life of an addict often disrupts and tears apart the family,” Dobbs said. “Trust is broken, so they come here. Families are able to come in to see their loved one sober and rebuild that trust with that God's mysterious acts of love and grace and forgiveness.”
Owens said she has seen first-hand how addiction can tear a family apart and steal everything important to a person, and she has seen how the ministry at Redemption Church can bring families back together. She shares her story any time she can in the hopes that God will use it to help someone else.
“God takes the broken and puts them back together, and He uses Redemption Church to help reunite these families,” Owens said. “I will never regret investing in the lives of others.”
King refers to the ministry as a recovery community because most of the people involved have had their lives affected by addiction and incarceration. She said a person leaving prison hoping to get into recovery can change their life at Redemption Missions.
“Whenever you come here to a place that you're comfortable, where you don't carry the shame from your addictions and your bad decisions, it is so much easier to be comfortable and to thrive,” King said. “I know that's what I felt when I got to this place... I mean, this place could be the difference between success and not. It really can it can be the difference between life and death.”
Dobbs the lack of judgment and genuine acceptance of people regardless of their history helps people build a new foundation for their life after incarceration.
“We serve an awesome God that gives us all a second chance,” Dobbs said. “The second chance that you or I might need may be totally different than the clients we serve, but he's a loving and forgiving God, and we're here just to be extensions of him.”