“God has a plan for your life,” counselor Jim Stoppenhagen told the six men seated in a semicircle in front of him. “One day, you will come face to face with the judge, and the sentence goes on for eternity.”
His listeners, all in yellow jumpsuits, had already been convicted of various minor earthly offenses. Inmates at the minimum-security Chain O' Lakes Correctional Facility in Albion, they are among the first to participate in Faith Based Mentoring Ministries, a program supporters hope will prevent future crimes by helping lawbreakers find strength, purpose and mutual support through faith in the ultimate lawgiver.
Nearly three years ago, I wrote about how a group of local men, most active in the Allen County Jail's chaplaincy program, had grown concerned and frustrated by the lack of spiritual and employment opportunities available to newly released prisoners — an economic and spiritual void that is often filled by a return to lifestyles unhealthy for the individual and society alike.
The original plan to find private-sector jobs for the program's participants hasn't quite panned out for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a tough economy. But as Monday's daylong session at Stillwater Retreat on Yoder Road in southern Allen County made clear, you have to walk before you can run. And as the tears shed by hardened men made equally clear, there is a need and hunger for its message of redemption.
“God has changed me. Anybody can have a kid, but now I want to be a father, not hide in self-pity or alcohol,” said Tom Hauck, 41, of Huntington, who is scheduled to be released in March after being convicted on drunken-driving charges. “I want to be the leader I need to be, but I can do that only with God's help.”
That process will start by trying to rebuild his relationship with his two children, but also with his father, Hauck said. “I don't think I've ever forgiven him. But I need to make amends and maybe bring him to the Lord.”
Hauck was one of the program's first participants, selected by Chain O' Lakes Superintendent Mike Cunegin, a 12-year member of Allen County Council who also served on the Fort Wayne Police Department for 26 years and, like Stoppenhagen, is on the program's board of directors. Changing lawbreakers from the inside is crucial, he said, because “you can't build enough prisons. A lot of guys … want to change their lives, but they need to build a ‘trust' factor in God and in Christian brothers before they get back on the street.”
Commercial Filter Service President Bob Wearley, one of the program's founders, knows how fragile so-called “jailhouse conversions” can be when confronted with temptation after release. He also knows most inmates would gladly trade their cells for a program that offers good food and a day in the woods. But with more than 70 percent of Allen County's budget consumed by the criminal justice system, “we have to break the cycle,” he said.
Delmar Elswick, 48, of Columbia City, also convicted of drunken driving, is convinced he'll be a changed man after his release in late 2012. “This is what I've wanted for a long time,” the father of three said. “I didn't like men (before this). … But I'm going to like myself better.”
Despite the economy, the program is finding work for participants. Of the 40 inmates to participate in its first year, seven have been released from Chain O' Lakes and one now lives at Stillwater, writing applications for grants the program needs. And Hauck, who has learned gardening skills, is slated to become groundskeeper at Stillwater after his release.
Eventually, the program hopes to provide jobs and income to newly released participants by selling produce at gardens opened with the help of Allen County extension agent Gonzalee Martin, who is also on its board of directors. That will cost money, of course, and Executive Director Tomi Cardin isn't even sure the current $50,000 budget can be sustained in 2011 without new funding sources.
“The bonds of brotherhood they build are incredible,” she said – noting that none of the released participants have returned to crime.
Reason enough to support the program if you have a few bucks to spare – and with your prayers, even if you don't.
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It could be just a coincidence, but state Attorney General Greg Zoeller said Monday he will work to change the laws dealing with the use of crime-related cash and other property seized by police. As I wrote last week, forfeiture laws have come under scrutiny because most of the loot is distributed to law-enforcement agencies even though the law calls for some of it to go to schools. Among his proposed changes, Zoeller said he will work to establish a less arbitrary distribution formula. It's a reform that is long overdue.
E-mail Kevin Leininger at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at 461-8355.