FEAST – A Welcoming Ministry to Ex-Offenders and their Families

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In the 33 years Tommy spent in prison, he had one visitor. One person considerate enough to check up on him. One person who took the time to care.

As Tommy neared the end of his prison term, he was invited to join others from the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln, Nebraska (CCCL) in an off-site worship service at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. Tommy went out of curiosity. What he discovered left him in awe.

“In the last hour of church, I’ve been shown more love than I had in 33 years,” Tommy told Jim Brewer, Director of Outreach Ministries, at Our Saviour. “I heard stories about you guys, how you treated us. They’re true and I’ll be back.”

Tommy immediately recognized the genuine welcome from the Christians at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. In the months following his release from prison, that welcome would turn into trusting relationships that allowed Tommy to successfully rebuild his life as a law-abiding citizen.

That’s the purpose of Our Saviour’s FEAST ministry – Friends Eating and Singing and Studying and Sharing Together. It brings people serving time at CCCL’s work release center and other ex-offenders and their families into the church for worship, a Sunday meal, Bible studies and fellowship.

“We are filling that need to have a church home and a place to connect,” explains Jan Riedman, the church’s director for spiritual growth who helped start the ministry. “That way when they are released from CCCL, they have a connection to the community. Research tells us that one marker for successful re-entry (into society) is that they must have a support network to go to.”

When the FEAST ministry started in 2004, it served six initial participants. As it grew to serve 50 people a week, the church saw that volunteers alone weren’t able to provide the support participants needed to develop both the faith and life skills necessary to successfully return to the community and resist re-offending. Wheat Ridge Ministries stepped in with a seed grant that allowed Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church to hire Jim to walk more deeply alongside more participants.

As a result, Jim and his team of 20 volunteer sponsors worked directly with 320 FEAST participants last year. They welcomed participants every Sunday morning to worship, but also connected many to housing, transportation, employment opportunities, medical care, food and clothing after their release from prison.

“If we help them and they stay with us in the church, it’s been proven that the recidivism (relapse into crime) rate is even better than the state averages of 21 to 23 percent. The records we have, if they stay with us, show recidivism is 10 percent,” says Jim.

By helping turn FEAST into a more comprehensive re-entry initiative in Lincoln, Wheat Ridge Ministries grant dollars also may impact the entire state. FEAST leaders are now part of The Re-entry Alliance of Nebraska, a statewide collaborative effort to affect how ex-offenders are released back into the community and reduce the associated public safety and tax burdens.

Of the 4,400 people incarcerated in Nebraska, Jan says that 80 percent will be released in the next three years.

“They will do that with or without the help of a supportive community. Do you want them coming back into the community with a support system in place? If they do, their chances of a successful re-entry are much better…. We look at re-entry spiritually and holistically. How do we help them become better people? Our work is just beginning,” she says.

And while the benefits to communities are apparent, the impact of FEAST is most evident in individuals’ changed lives.

“FEAST has helped me out a lot,” says 51-year-old Freddy, who was released in 2002 after a three-year alcohol-related prison term. “I’ve learned a lot and I’ve gained a lot of wisdom and knowledge from the people I’m associated with. It helps me be stronger.”

Freddy is now sober and leads a detoxification meeting that draws upward of 80 people each week. “I felt there were so many people who helped me in my life. They saw something in me I hadn’t seen. Only God knows that. It’s most important now for me to help other people like they helped me,” he says.

Thank you for your support of Wheat Ridge Ministries. We use your generosity to facilitate hope-giving ministries like FEAST and transform the lives of Tommy, Freddy and thousands more.

Written by Jennifer Halupnik