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Oklahoma ministry helps ex-convicts adjust

 
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1:00 P.M. EDT August 3, 2011



A band comprising ex-prisoners plays during Thursday evening worship services at Oklahoma City Redemption Church. UMNS photos by Boyce Bowdon.
A band comprising ex-prisoners plays during Thursday evening worship services
at Oklahoma City Redemption Church. UMNS photos by Boyce Bowdon.
View in Photo Gallery

Bureau of Justice statistics indicate that about half of the prisoners released from U.S. federal and state prisons during recent decades have been back behind bars within three years.

Stan Basler understands why. During his 17 years as director of Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries of the Oklahoma Annual (regional) Conference of The United Methodist Church, he has ministered to hundreds of recently released prisoners.

"Many come out with the same attitudes, addictions and bad habits they had when they went to prison," Basler said.

"Once they leave prison, suddenly they are on their own. When they get hungry, no one hands them a tray. They have the same physical and financial needs they had before they went to prison, and now their problems are even more overwhelming. They are ex-cons."

Basler said recently released prisoners also have heavy emotional and spiritual needs. These often include difficulty relating to estranged family members, not having a solid support system, dealing with guilt, and feeling worthless and hopeless.

Under Basler's direction, the Oklahoma Conference has developed the Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries, one of the most comprehensive and effective ministries in The United Methodist Church to help recently released prisoners.

Two components to ministry

The ministry has two major components — Exodus Houses and Redemption Churches.

The Exodus House component has two residential facilities, one in Oklahoma City and one in Tulsa. Both are 14-unit apartment complexes. In each, two units are residences for fulltime staff members; two combine as offices and a community room, and the remaining 10 units are for recently released prisoners.

Basler said the name "Exodus House" describes the ministry’s mission: to help people who have left captivity progress in their journeys to become free and new people.



The Rev. Stan Basler directs Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries of the Oklahoma Conference of The United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Stan Basler directs Criminal Justice and Mercy
Ministries of the Oklahoma Conference of The United
Methodist Church. View in Photo Gallery

Since Exodus House space is limited, administrators try to select applicants who are most likely to benefit from the ministry, Basler said.

"We believe with God’s grace, people can change. But, as good Wesleyan Methodists, we also believe God gives us free will. If we want to change, and if we accept God's transforming love, we can change. But nobody can fix us. We must want to change."

For those who want to make a new beginning after prison, Basler explained, Exodus House tries to be a disciplined and mutually accountable Christian community in which individuals can make basic changes.

Applicants sign a covenant agreeing to comply faithfully with all Exodus House rules. They have curfews. They cannot have controlled substances — legal or illegal. They must respect and support other residents, work through re-entry issues and save money to pay rent and other expenses they will face when they leave. They also must strive to grow spiritually.

Exodus House residents receive help with food, clothing, driver’s licenses, transportation, jobs, counseling, medical care and other necessary supports.

Residents typically stay at Exodus House for six months. They do not pay rent, but after living there two months, they pay utilities. When they have steady employment and money in their savings account, meet other program requirements and seem ready to live independently, they “graduate” from the program. They may take all furnishings and household goods from their apartment to their new living quarters. Local United Methodist churches refurnish the apartment and stock it with supplies for the next resident.

Four churches involved

The Redemption Church component of the justice-and-mercy ministry includes four churches — one in Oklahoma City, one in Tulsa and two in other cities. They are fellowships of prisoners, ex-prisoners, their families and their friends of faith.



Former prisoner Robin Wertz says Exodus House provided “just what I needed — a clean and sober environment, a stable structure, emotional support, spiritual nurture and a whole lot of love.” Wertz is now director of Exodus House.
Former prisoner Robin Wertz says Exodus House provided
“just what I needed — a clean and sober environment, a stable
structure, emotional support, spiritual nurture and a whole lot
of love.” Wertz is now director of Exodus House.
View in Photo Gallery

Each Sunday afternoon and Thursday evening, all Exodus House residents are required to attend worship services and participate in study or support groups designed for them. Inmates from nearby prisons, along with former prisoners and their families and friends, join them.

"It’s extremely rare when someone who completes our ministry returns to prison,” Basler said. “But we are not here just to reduce recidivism. Our primary mission is to be faithful vehicles of God's transforming grace so people can break free from bondage, experience abundant life and help build a better world."

Basler said that in 1990, he closed his law office, accepted God's call to preach and enrolled at Saint Paul School of Theology. He also made a request to God. "I asked God to remember that I like to work with people in trouble. My prayer was answered," he said with a smile.

*Bowdon is a freelance writer in Oklahoma City and former director of communications for the Oklahoma Annual (regional) Conference.

News media contact: Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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