It’s My Mission to Reengage the Faith Community with Returning Citizens on a Nationwide Basis

September 13, 2018

“I am a Bishop Designate, an ordained Baptist minister, a psychologist, and a medically-retired marine warrant officer and combat veteran.”

I am also the National Director of Support Services for Healing Communities USA, a faith-based prison reentry initiative.   My work involves reaching back into the faith community to reengage them in the social justice movement, with a focus on criminal justice reform.  There are so many barriers that returning citizens have to overcome today—an estimated 40,000 laws and regulations nationwide that prevent people from finding jobs, homes, and educational opportunities.  It’s like someone taking a Polaroid picture of you at one moment in time and having that one moment define your entire life.

I help churches, synagogues and other places of worship set up reentry ministries so they can create supportive environments within their congregations for returning citizens and their families, and also for the people they harmed.   Our practice is based on the principles of restorative justice, a process that focuses on the rehabilitation of people through reconciliation with their victim and the community at large.  I have experienced restorative justice personally, as both a formerly incarcerated person and the family member of a victim of crime.  Twenty-three years ago, when I was emerging from my own addiction, my 14 year old son was killed in an act of street violence by another youth.  I know what it’s like to be standing in a morgue at 1:30 in the morning to identify your baby boy.  I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for not protecting my son.  The other boy, who was only 12 years old, was tried and sent to a juvenile facility.  A few years later, I was asked to preach at a facility in Maryland, and halfway through my sermon, I realized that the boy who killed my son was in the audience.   I wanted to do what any father would have done, but God tapped me on the shoulder and said, “That’s not what I brought you here for.”  I ended up telling him in front of the whole audience that I forgave him and we began a relationship and we’re still in contact today.  He lives in California with his family and he does anti-violence work with gangs in LA and we are still very much in contact.

I’ve always been able to see multiple sides of all the issues, and that allows me to speak to different audiences.   I’m a formerly incarcerated person with a military law enforcement background and I’m the father of a crime victim.  I’m a pastor and a practicing psychologist, and the integration of faith and treatment informs my life’s work.  I can speak from all those perspectives.  As Co-Chair of the Restorative Justice Committee of the Pennsylvania Reentry Council I recently had a positive interaction with a member of the committee who was constantly blocking consensus on everything we were trying to do.  So I took him out to lunch and asked him to tell me how he felt.  I just let him talk for 45 minutes and used techniques I’ve learned from Leading with Conviction—just listening and providing feedback in a way that made him feel that he was being heard.  Now we have a very different and much more constructive working relationship.

To be in a room with 30 other leaders has been literally life changing.  As powerful as each and every one of us is, we are more powerful together and we are forming lifelong relationships.  As a pastor, it’s refreshing to be with people who aren’t afraid to push back when I fall short.

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