This church ministers to inmates

Paul Stevens

All of his parishioners have been convicted of crime and are serving prison time for their offense, but there’s no job the Rev. Paul Stone would rather do than to serve as their pastor.

“I feel like I’m working with people who recognize that to change their lives, they can’t do it alone. They need God’s help,” said Stone, who directs The Church of the Damascus Road — a congregation of inmates at the North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City and the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility. It is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

“That is very satisfying, watching the growth in these guys. I am given more love overtly in the prison setting than I experienced in the congregations I served (outside) before.”

Thousands of inmates have been part of the congregation since it was formed in 1997, first in Rockwell City and then the following year when the Fort Dodge prison opened. The Rev. Carroll Lang became its first pastor after playing a role in the city’s second bid to land a prison after losing out to Newton in its first attempt. A promise was made to have an experienced pastor in place, he said, who would work with inmates inside the prisons and “help when they get out to reintegrate into society as contributing citizens.”

Lang was pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Fort Dodge when he was called to serve the Church of the Damascus Road, the first prison congregation in Iowa and at the time one of six such congregations nationwide. (There are now four in Iowa.) And for the next 12 years, until he was succeeded by Stone, he helped lead its growth — meeting with inmates twice a week at each prison, worship services one night and Bible study the other. Any inmates in the prisons can attend. They become and remain as members strictly through attendance, Stone said.

Funding comes from congregations, individuals and businesses in a 100-mile radius. Churches of all denominations contribute, Lang said, heeding Jesus in Matthew 25 — “I was in prison and you came to me.” CoDR operates with two paid employees — the pastor and a halftime office secretary. Its volunteers go into both prisons and also work with inmates on their re-entry into society once released.

Two of the most rewarding programs conducted by the congregation are Brothers in Blue and Story Tellers. Brothers in Blue is a three-day spiritual renewal ministry retreat held twice a year with heavy interaction with inmates. In the story-telling program, donated children’s books are read aloud monthly by inmates and recorded on DVDs, and the DVDs are sent to their children who can hear and see their dad read a book, building a relationship with child and parent.

“The 11 ¢ years I served as pastor were probably the most fun and rewarding time in my career,” Lang said. “A lot of it is the fact they really appreciate someone who comes in regularly. Most are already people of faith, who went awry, and are seeking community and growth. And there are some who get religion.”

Topher McCoy, who was recently paroled after serving 13 years of a 50-year sentence for child endangerment resulting in death, said “getting to know this family of mine was a joy and blessing to help in every way for me to succeed. It helped me find a place to live, to help find a job. The biggest thing, they check in on me each and every day.”

McCoy was part of the congregation’s inside church council while serving his sentence and is now being shepherded by one of the 10 re-entry teams from the congregation that is working with him during his first year on the outside. One of the team members went with him when he first met his probation officer. “They’re interested in you as a person, you and your goals, in helping you succeed.” McCoy hopes to eventually join a re-entry team “to help other guys” in his situation.

The re-entry/reintegration teams “offer the basics, the nuts and bolts of life’s necessities — mentoring, counseling, getting into good groups,” Stone said. “They’ll make referrals whenever they can — finding out who’s hiring in the area. Now there are more jobs than there are people to fill them. They try to speak honestly. The U.S. government passed a second-chance act and a real tax benefit to hire guys out of prison. We appeal to their humanity, let’s give this guy another chance.”

Stone believes that inmates who take part in the congregation have a lower recidivism rate than those who do not. “Depending on who you ask and what criteria are used, recidivism is generally thought to be over 60 percent for all those released,” he said. “My estimate for recidivism for CoDR members is 30 – 40 percent.” That number has risen in the last few years, he said, due to the increased availability of meth and opioids, as well as increased gang activity in Iowa’s larger cities. “I get bummed when guys go back to prison,” Stone said. “It hurts.”

“When a guy relapses, it’s really tough on the team,” Lang said. “It’s like any parent whose kid messes up, we ask, ‘What did we do wrong?'”

Stone, who worked 15 years as a lay person in the Illinois Department of Corrections after graduating from seminary in Chicago, said he believes that “for guys to change their lives, they have to get in touch with God. That’s my bias, but I see it. Their chances are so much better. God is a tough sell for most — they get labeled Bible thumpers but if they’re really getting it, they don’t care. That’s why they get into church where they feel comfortable, they get help.”

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