Spiritual transformation that began in prison

By Boyce Bowdon

Robin Wertz says she learned a life-changing lesson at Exodus House, the United Methodist residential ministry in Oklahoma City where people who are fresh out of prison come to start a new life.

“I’ve learned that ‘If God’s in it, I can win it!’” she declares.

It’s a lesson Robin says she needed to learn. “It transformed my life.”

She grew up in Oklahoma with seven sisters and one brother. Their father left the family when she was nine.

“After I graduated from high school, I married a guy 16 years older than me,” she says. “Our marriage lasted about a year.”

She married a second time, and the couple moved to California.

“By the time I was 21, we had a boy and a girl, a dog and a cat, and everything was going good,” she recalls. “But we started drinking on weekends, our marriage started falling apart and we split up.”

She says after their divorce, her ex-husband got sober but she didn’t, and the court awarded him their children.

“I got on welfare and started selling drugs trying to keep the house, but I ended up losing it. Then I started drinking even more. Even though I was selling drugs, alcohol was really my problem. Lots of days I drank a couple fifths of whiskey.”

After her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Robin moved back to Oklahoma and helped care for her until she died a year later.

“After Mom passed away, I called my people in California and had them send me drugs, and I started selling methamphetamines. Eight months later, they raided my mom’s house and arrested me.”

Robin was given two twenty-year sentences to be served concurrently. Twelve years of each sentence were suspended. She had to serve four of the remaining eight years before she could come up for parole.

“For me, prison was traumatizing,” Robin, says. “For the first time, I came face to face with the pain and suffering I caused selling drugs.”

She says she met prisoners who told her they had written hot checks, stolen credit cards and anything else they could get their hands on to buy drugs.

“I met women who had moved in with boyfriends, who had gotten into abusive relationships, and whose kids had ended up getting hurt. I talked with women whose marriages had been destroyed and whose children had been taken away from them—all because of drugs. After I saw the harm I had done selling dope, I was devastated.”

But Robin says even though she didn’t know it was happening, God was using used her devastation to help transform her life.

“I knew I couldn’t go on the way I had been living. I had to stay sober. And I knew I couldn’t do that by myself. I needed God, and I started searching for him.”

Robin said even though she’s a preacher’s daughter, it wasn’t until she was in prison she started digging into the Bible, seeking God’s help.

“Before long, I stopped giving myself big excuses and blaming everybody else for my situation. I started going to church services the prison offered. I learned sign language and started teaching women in prison boot camp how to interpret Christian songs for deaf prisoners.”

When the time grew near for her to be reviewed for parole, she started thinking about where she could live after she was released.

“I didn’t want to fall back on my family and be a burden on them,” she says. “If I moved back to where I had lived, I would be near the same people I was with before I went to prison, and that would make it harder for me to get a fresh start.”

She realized finding find a place to rent would be difficult for her since many landlords won’t rent to ex-cons. And she knew getting a job wasn’t going to easy either.

Robin says she also knew that as urgently as she would need food, lodging and a job, she was going to need something more if she wanted to stay out of prison and become the person she wanted to be.

“I knew I needed God in my life.”

While exploring where she could go, Robin discovered that the Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries (CJAMM) of the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church provides a ministry especially for people leaving prison who are determined to change.

She learned that the ministry has residential facilities in Oklahoma City and Tulsa where recently released prisoners can live rent-free for six months, sometimes up to nine months. Each is called Exodus House. In addition, CJAMM’s ministry includes four fellowships for prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. Each fellowship is called Redemption Church. In addition to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, they are in two other Oklahoma cities: Lawton and Ardmore.

Robin also learned that the purpose of the CJAMM is to help recently released prisoners who sincerely want to change build a plan of recovery from addiction and develop a stronger spiritual foundation centered in Jesus Christ. She knew that was what she needed as much as she needed a supportive place to live while she was finding a job and adjusting to life outside of prison.

So she applied for admission to Exodus House. She was approved and placed on the Exodus House waiting list, pending her release.

Robin says the parole board didn’t approve her for parole as quickly as she had hoped and she was disappointed. Dena, the Exodus House caseworker with whom she had been corresponding, encouraged her to keep hoping. A few months later, she was paroled.

So in June 2007, Ruth moved into her own apartment at the United Methodist Exodus House in Oklahoma City—which has 10 apartments for residents, plus two others for an office and a community room.

Robin says she found out immediately she wasn’t on her own. Her caseworker was there to help her every step of the way.

“Dena took me to the courthouse so I could make arrangements to pay my fines and court costs, to the parole office so I could check in, to get my food stamps set up. She even took me to get my driver’s license reinstated—I needed them for identification even though I didn’t have a car.”

Robin says a few days after she arrived at Exodus House she started applying for jobs.

“I went to numerous places. A month passed and I still didn’t have even a promising lead,” she recalls. “Just as I had expected, when employers found I had just gotten out of prison, they told me they didn’t have anything for me. I was very stressed out. But Dena reminded me that nobody expected me to get a job the first week or the first month or even the first two months.”

Dena told Robin she knew many employers don’t hire people who have been convicted of felonies, and most jobs available for her would start with low pay and offer limited opportunity for advancement.

She told Robin, “It’s going to take time. Just keep looking and you will find one.”

Dena was right, says Robin. “Finally, exactly two months after I arrived at Exodus House, I got a job at a fast-food place.”

She says she’s not surprised that approximately half the people released from prison are back behind bars within three years.

“Many of them don’t have any marketable skills,” she explains. “Some have never had a job doing anything that was legal. So, when they can’t find a job, they get desperate and go back to selling drugs or doing whatever else they did that got them in prison before.”

Robin says her caseworker wasn’t the only person pulling for her.

“Exodus House folks take care of one another,” she says. “When I was new, the residents who have been at Exodus House a few months would see I was discouraged and would look me in the eye and say, ‘You can make it!’ When I heard those words coming from people who had been where I was and had gotten past it, I started to hope again.”

Robin says she gained much of her spiritual growth while participating in activities at Redemption Church.

All residents of Exodus House are required to come to Redemption every Sunday afternoon and every Thursday evening. They are joined by prisoners arriving in CJAMM buses in from several nearby prisons, along with ex-prisoners and their families and friends who live in the area. Attendance is usually over 100.

Every worship service includes congregational singing, a praise band, testimonials, a gospel sermon, and communion. While half the people are in worship, the other half are in study classes and support groups specifically designed to meet their needs.

Classes include several Bible studies—one is an introductory class and others are for men and women ready for more advanced Bible study. There are also classes in anger management, parenting, budgeting and other practical skills. There are support groups for persons with a variety of addictions.

“When I got out of prison, I was still dealing with a lot of spiritual issues and I knew it,” Robin says. “I had low self-esteem and I had a messed up image of God. I was just beginning to believe God wasn’t the unforgiving judge I had grown up believing he was but I still had a long way to go before I really believed God loved me. I do now!”

She says what she got at Exodus House and Redemption Church was precisely what she needed: structure, guidance, and a whole lot of love centered in the teachings of Jesus.

“The ministers who preached and the leaders who taught reminded us again and again: ‘If God is in it, you can win it.’ And I’m convinced it’s true. When I do what I think God wants, then God’s in it with me and I stay sober and have the joy and peace and can help others do the same.”

Steve Byrd, pastor of Redemption Church in Oklahoma City and the associate director of the Oklahoma Conference Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries, says CJAMM prefers to hire directors for Exodus House who have been to prison and have graduated from the Exodus program.

In keeping with that policy, CJAMM hired Robin two years ago to direct the Exodus House in Oklahoma City.

“When I was serving time for selling drugs, I never thought I would ever be directing such a wonderful ministry,” Robin says. “I know what our residents are going through. And now I’m teaching them what Dena and Steve and others taught, and I know it’s true: ‘If God’s in it, you can win it.’”

 

Boyce Bowdon, who was a United Methodist pastor for 20 years and director of Communication for Oklahoma Conference for 24 years, now writes inspirational articles and books from his home in Oklahoma City, where he and his wife Arlene live.