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Church offers hope, support to ex-offenders

11/11/2002 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: Photographs are available with this story

A UMNS FeatureBy David Malloy*

All over the world, United Methodists are helping ex-convicts re-enter society and live productive lives.

United Methodist churches have taken Disciple Bible study to prisons and sponsored summer camps for prisoners' children. Currently, 30 United Methodist pastors are serving as full-time prison chaplains, and five are serving part time. In each of the denomination's annual conferences, volunteers and local churches are providing prison ministries.

However, with about 1,600 prisoners being released from state and federal prisons in the United States every day, the need for more help is growing. Shunned by society, most ex-offenders receive little assistance upon release, but Dixon United Methodist Church in Dayton, Ohio, home of the Keepers of the Village, is changing that.

"The fact is that 65 percent of people released from jail are re-incarcerated, and 33 percent are back within two years," says the Rev. Robert Biekman, pastor at Dixon. "We want to empower them to not make the same mistakes twice. In turn, they can help liberate others going through the same thing."

Biekman has been pastor at Dixon for almost two years. When he arrived, he saw the need for community outreach.

"Dixon is located near a juvenile detention center, a pre-release center, a workhouse for prisoners, (the) Dayton State Correctional (Institution) and the Monday Program (Montgomery/Dayton), a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center," Biekman says. "That's five correctional institutions within a three-mile radius of this church that are a part of this community. These are the places the Lord is leading us so that we can have the most positive impact on this community."

The restorative justice ministry at Dixon provides hope and opportunities for ex-offenders and their families. The church offers a support network that connects ex-offenders with the community and allows them to dialogue on key issues relevant to their transition. It also helps them avoid going back to prison.

The Keepers of the Village offers various levels of support to ex-offenders, including letters of referral for employment, vocational and technical training, housing assistance - such as a security deposit for an apartment - and other financial aid. A simple $20 grant can help an ex-offender buy a bus pass to go to job interviews or meetings with a parole officer.

"You can't imagine how much just going to the courthouse to support an ex-offender can mean to them," Biekman says. "We don't have a lot of funding, and when the money runs out and the sermons run out, just being there for them when they need you can help so much."

Biekman hopes the ministry can reconnect the ex-offenders with their families, their community and God. The support group has met on the last Monday of every month since May to hear guest speakers and discuss issues of concern. The Keepers of the Village also sponsors a drug abuse support program on Tuesdays called "God is the Way," which the pastor describes as a "spiritual 12-step program."

Biekman is so committed to the plight of ex-offenders that he and another member of Dixon United Methodist Church, Abdur-Rauf Rashid, have started the National Council of Ex-Offenders Inc. Rashid serves as the executive director and Biekman as the first vice president of the nonprofit organization. The council is dedicated to the support and rehabilitation of ex-offenders, and it works to promote their self-esteem. It provides access to support systems to meet their spiritual, economic, social and emotional needs.

Rashid is an ex-offender who worked for a major airline for 14 years but lost his job after publishing a book designed to help ex-offenders going through reintegration. When he lost his job, the community and Dixon United Methodist Church rallied around him. He wanted to give back to the community that had supported him and felt the best way was to help others who don't have the support he received.

Community leaders are noticing Dixon's work. At a Keepers of the Village meeting, Ohio State Rep. Fred Strahorn applauds the group's goals and endorsed ideas such as tax credits for companies that hire ex-offenders. Many of the policies toward ex-offenders are "out of whack," Strahorn says.

"The only way for those policies to change is for the organization to take visible stands and set goals," he adds. He encourages the Keepers of the Village to work more actively with the legislature to align public policy with the group's goals.

Biekman is pleased with the direction of the new ministry and the church's role in maintaining it. He has encouraged the congregation to be more open, to remove artificial barriers so that others can feel comfortable about coming and receiving the word of God. Although joining the church is not a requirement for participation in the program, the facilitators do emphasize the spiritual principles on which the ministry is based.

"Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, Jeremiah - they would all be considered ex-offenders according to today's society," Biekman says. "How would we treat them? Would we treat them with the same contempt and scorn that we treat ex-offenders with today?

"We all fall short. We are all sinners. I hope that we are providing the theology behind the oneness of God," he said. "For the ex-offender, I hope the ministry is conveying an understanding of God's grace, how it stretches and covers a multitude of sin. For the community, I want them to understand that our salvation depends on how much we can forgive."

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*Malloy is the recipient of the 2002-2003 Judith Weidman Racial Ethnic Minority Fellowship, sponsored by United Methodist Communications. He is working with the communication production team of the West Ohio Co

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