Written by Gaye Holman
His hands trembled as he raised his fork, the slaw making messy drips over his plate. The muscular, sharply intelligent man tried to converse as he struggled to hang onto his masculinity and self-control. It was his first day out of prison. His first day of emerging from behind a world of barbed wire, sally ports, and authoritarian guards. The first day in twelve long years where he could realize that the road ahead of him was real, where he again could be his own man.
He had twelve dollars in his pocket and a list of needs that would cost much more. All his worldly goods were stuffed into three black plastic garbage bags. He was forty-six years old and scared.
We were about to begin a journey together. A small reentry group from Beargrass Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, had met with him before his release as he articulated what he would need to get a new start in life. We gave him a cell phone, and paid his rent for a halfway house. We drove him to offices to obtain food stamps, an official ID, and bus passes, and to an appointment with his parole officer. We became his surrogate family, taking him to outpatient surgery, and sitting by his bedside in the recovery room. We helped with clothing, bedding, and kitchen supplies. We drew our congregation in as specific needs were identified.
Each ex-offender has different needs and takes a different journey as he emerges from prison. We turn to various Beargrass programs for help. One man, incarcerated for thirty-three years, was frightened to walk out of his apartment building and needed unusual reassurance. Sustainable employment was a problem, but we turned to the Beargrass Micro-loan Program designed to help low-income people start a home business. Before loaning him money, the group helped him develop a business plan for a part-time upholstery business. He repaid the loan steadily and on time.
Another man needed transportation as well as some exercise to deal with his health issues. The newly formed Beargrass Bicycle Ministry provided him with a refurbished bike.
The Beargrass Reentry Project is not a “program.” Instead, we work in equal partnership with the ex-offenders, providing support to help the men fill their self-indentified needs and goals. Advice is given, but not forced. Our financial assistance usually lasts only three months. Our emotional support lasts as long as they wish. We often get calls as the men become more independent, asking for advice or help with moves, but more often announcing joys and accomplishments in their lives.
The Beargrass Reentry Project is a recognized committee under the Community Ministry Team of the church. We choose, however, not to receive money from the church budget, instead raising our own funds as participants in the Beargrass Alternative Giving Fair.
While our men’s rate of successful reentry into the community is well above the state’s average, their journeys are not without struggles and setbacks. Surrounded by God’s caring love, we walk their paths together, saddened at times, but cheered more often than not. In following Jesus’s mandate to “do unto the least of these,” our congregation is humbled and warmed in our travels.