Exodus House and Redemption Church in Oklahoma City

I spent Thursday afternoon and evening with folks from Exodus House and Redemption Church, two ministries run by the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church. These and other programs are part of their “Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries” (CJAMM), directed by the Reverend Dr. Stan Basler, who had invited me to visit.

The Exodus House mission is “discipling ex-offenders and their families from captivity, through the wilderness, to freedom.” A primary emphasis is “helping released ex-offenders and their dependent children to become productive, cohesive family units” through a “comprehensive residential care ministry” that provides “a disciplined and mutually accountable Christian community in which basic changes can be made and new ways of living tested and strengthened for persons desiring to make a new beginning after release from prison. We believe that with God’s grace, change is possible and that, in Jesus Christ, creation begins anew. (II Corinthians 5: 17)

Robin Wertz, Case Manager, gave me a tour of the Oklahoma City Exodus House, one of two in the state (they have another Exodus House in Tulsa). The Oklahoma City location has been in operation since 1998. They have twelve furnished apartments to offer, rent-free, to people coming out of prison who are willing to abide by the requirements of the program. They must complete an extensive application, provide references, have a phone interview, sign an “Exodus House Covenant” agreement, a “Rules and Conditions of Residency” agreement and a release stating that, in consideration of the services provided by Exodus House, participants will not file any claims, complaints or suits of any kind against the Ministry, Board of Directors, Staff, Volunteers or Hosts. The process to get into Exodus House typically begins when the individual is within 60-90 days of their release from prison.

As the information packet for Exodus House so clearly puts it, the number one requirement for admission is: “You must have a clear desire to change. This is a free housing program, with responsibilities required of the residents. If you are not willing to abide by strict rules and to live differently than you have in the past, you will not want to live here.”

Exodus House residents receive help getting food, clothing, driver’s licenses, transportation, jobs, counseling, medical care and other necessary supports. Exodus House staff also assists them with whatever requirements the resident must meet in order to regain custody of their children. In exchange, residents must maintain full-time employment, attend evening meetings at the house and individual counseling sessions, attend Thursday night and Sunday morning worship services at Redemption Church, submit to random drug and alcohol testing, meet curfews, help with upkeep of their own apartment and the apartment complex, meet all of their probation/parole requirements and save a minimum of $500 during their residency at Exodus House (though they’re encouraged to save much more, with a general goal of saving $200 per month).

Residents and their children typically stay at Exodus House for 6 months. When they have found their own living quarters, have steady employment and money in their savings account, have met the other requirements of the program and seem ready to live independently, they “graduate” from the program and may take all of the furnishings and household goods from their Exodus House apartment to their new living quarters.

Several local churches “sponsor” apartments at Exodus House, and provide furniture, household goods, food and sometimes even clothing for residents and their children.

Robin Wertz, my host and tour guide, graduated from Exodus House several years ago, and was living on her own when she received an offer 9 months ago to return to Exodus House as a case manager. Robin clearly has a heart for helping others who have been down similar paths, and combines her compassion with firmness and a strong sense of the realities of what it takes to successfully re-integrate into the “free world” after having been incarcerated. What a joy it was to meet and talk with her!

After the Exodus House tour with Robin, I made my way across town to the Redemption Church service at the Penn United Methodist Church.

Redemption Church in Oklahoma City is one of four across the state (the others are in Ardmore, Lawton and Tulsa). On Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings, people living in community corrections centers or transitional living centers under the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections are transported to the Church in several large buses by volunteers. On Thursday nights, they have a meal, classes and an hour-long worship service with people from the community. They offer childcare and children’s programs as well. The Oklahoma City Redemption Church serves about 140 inmates from 8 community corrections centers around the city. Many ex-offenders who are living independently and “graduates” of Exodus House also attend Redemption Church and serve as volunteers and mentors to those still in transition from incarceration to freedom.

During the meal before worship, I met several volunteers, graduates and inmates who are part of the Redemption Church community. Several asked what had brought me here, and I talked briefly about the book and my work with young offenders back in PA. Several people shared their own stories of their paths to incarceration and the long struggle back to freedom. We talked about ways to try to effectively reach kids who get into trouble so they don’t end up on the same path. Then it was time to go into the sanctuary for the worship service.

The worship service was a high-energy hour of praise music, accompanied by a band of musicians (electric guitars, drums, bass, percussion), sharing of joys and concerns, many prayers, a brief sermon from Dr. Basler, communion, and several altar calls for those wishing to dedicate or re-dedicate their lives to Christ. The overall message in all of the music, prayers and in the sermon, was that all things are possible through belief in Jesus Christ, all sins will be forgiven and all needs will be met, if only you put your full faith and trust in Him. The sharing of joys and concerns during the service was extensive, with concerns far outweighing joys. As I listened to all the very serious concerns that weigh on so many hearts there, I understood why the message Dr. Basler and Redemption Church are offering has such power.

When the service ended, I said my goodbyes to Dr. Basler and some of the people I’d met, gave Robin a hug and wished her continuing success and blessings, and got into the van to drive west for an hour or so, to get a head start on the next day’s long trek to New Mexico. As I left the suburbs of Oklahoma City, I drove through vast stretches of some of the darkest night sky I’ve seen in a long time, with countless stars twinkling overhead.

While I drove, I pondered the work of Exodus House and Redemption Church, and what they offer to people struggling against sometimes overwhelming odds to get their lives back on track. Though we may differ somewhat in the specifics of our theology and spiritual practices, there’s no doubt that their message of redemption, forgiveness and hope, along with the many tangible supports they offer, the care and compassion they so freely give, and the sense of a community where people who have been written off by the rest of society can feel they truly belong, are all blessing the lives of many people there in Oklahoma City.

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: restorative justice grace goes to prison book tour criminal justice

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