The key to staying free: Inmate aftercare
By John W. Kennedy in Lindale and Palestine, Texas
Lost people didn’t have high hopes for Kenny Wettermark when
he finished serving 21 years in a Texas prison in November 2006. His wife had
left him, he didn’t have a relationship with his four children, he owned
virtually nothing, and the Texas Department of Corrections physically monitored
his every movement. The odds of successful re-entry for someone who has been
locked up since the middle of the Reagan administration appeared slim.
But Joe Fauss, founder of the Calvary Commission in Lindale,
Texas, believes no one is beyond hope if he has made a commitment to follow
Jesus Christ. In Coffield Prison Unit, Wettermark discovered the Lord in a real
way for the first time after he started reading Scripture. Risking harassment,
he carried his Bible everywhere, listened to Christian radio teaching programs
and became involved in worship services.
Wettermark knew he needed a Christian atmosphere to
transition into a changed culture so that he wouldn’t spend the rest of his
life behind bars. A chaplain told him about the Calvary Commission aftercare
While serving a 60-year sentence for conspiracy to commit
capital murder, Wettermark had seen plenty of men return to prison soon after
walking through the gates. Although around 95 percent of men in prison are
eventually released, 68 percent of ex-convicts are rearrested within three
years of gaining their freedom, according to the Department of Justice.
“If you get out without a structured discipleship program,
you’re going back,” says Wettermark, convicted of threatening to kill a
district attorney who had brought drug charges against his wife.
Calvary Commission, based 100 miles east of Dallas, provides
an environment that enables parolees to achieve their quest to stay out of
prison — although many return for volunteer ministry. At the 186-acre
Creekwood Ranch at the end of a rural road, Calvary Commission provides a place
where former inmates eat, learn, work and live. Joe Fauss founded the ministry
in 1977. Charlotte, his retired schoolteacher wife of 49 years, is office
Currently, 31 men and six women are being mentored at
Creekwood Ranch. In the past three decades, more than 2,000 have graduated.
Thanks to Calvary Commission, Wettermark, who turned 54 this
month, is a prime example of a redeemed life. He is working on an associate
degree in biblical studies, with the goal of returning to prison to disciple
He still faces restrictions. He must wear a Global
Positioning System bracelet around his left ankle that tracks him constantly.
He can’t leave the dorm before 7 a.m., and he must be back on the dorm floor by
8 p.m. Anytime he wants to go outside Calvary Commission grounds he must have
Department of Corrections paperwork cleared in advance.
But Calvary Commission leaders trust him. Wettermark is the
ministry’s dorm supervisor and auto mechanic.
“I was once a hothead, an angry and bitter person,”
Wettermark says. “But it’s been my purpose since my wife divorced me [in 1996]
never to bring shame on the Lord again.”
Despite all his life’s troubles, Wettermark is grateful.
“God has loved me and provided for me, even when I didn’t
love myself,” Wettermark says. “If the Lord can forgive me, I can’t be bitter
at anyone. Joe and Charlotte have so much grace and mercy on people.”
A HEART FOR MINISTRY
Fauss owned four grocery stores and three restaurants in
nearby Tyler before he exchanged financial security for ministry uncertainty.
He operated a Teen Challenge Center for seven years, but then sensed a calling
to care for prisoners after their release.
Joe, Charlotte and their four sons left their four-bedroom
brick dream house and moved into a mobile home at Creekwood Ranch —
wooded and rolling property donated by a couple the family didn’t know —
to start Calvary Commission.
Although aftercare today is suddenly on the government’s
radar screen, three decades ago Fauss had to convince state officials of its
benefits. When he began Calvary Commission in 1977, parolees legally couldn’t
stay under the same roof.
“The same boldness and energy that was used for the enemy
can be used for God,” says Fauss, an endorsed Assemblies of God chaplain. “The
Lord loves these people.”
Fauss is a trusting father figure to many who had no adult
male role model growing up. The 67-year-old grandfather of 15 is stoked about
finding “treasures” among society’s outcasts. His calm demeanor,
kindheartedness, unassuming personality and good-natured joking create just the
balm the men at Calvary Commission need.
“The grid they look through is a father who beat them, a
spouse who abandoned them,” says Fauss, who tells his story in the book
Challenging the Impossible: Discovering Beautiful Trophies for Jesus.
To qualify to live at Calvary Commission, an ex-inmate
— whether having just finished one year or a life term — must have
been actively serving the Lord in prison and have earned a chaplain’s
The goal is to receive a completion certificate after one
year of spiritual mentoring and life application. Classes include biblical
counseling, anger resolution, discipleship, systematic theology and basic
computer skills. Fauss teaches Spanish in addition to his administrative
duties. Men are allowed to remain a second year if they want to obtain an
associate’s degree or a third year for a bachelor’s degree.
Buildings on the campus are efficient, not extravagant. Men
live in unadorned dormitories. A library, computer lab and prayer chapel
facilitate learning and spiritual growth. Several on the Calvary Commission
staff of 20 lead morning chapels, as do pastors from the community.
AFTERCARE NEEDS GROW
When Fauss began Calvary Commission, the Lone Star State had
18,000 people locked up. Now the figure is 162,000. Across the nation, federal
and state prisons set free an all-time record 698,500 inmates in 2005, the
latest year for available statistics.
Alvin F. Worthley, national director of Assemblies of God
Chaplaincy Ministries in Springfield, Mo., says Calvary Commission is an example
of the Lord miraculously providing property and workers for a ministry that
puts God first.
“Joe Fauss has seen the desperate need of those coming out
of prison and without a lot of financial backing has developed an effective
program that many local churches could adapt in their communities,” Worthley
Worthley lauds Fauss for providing a family atmosphere for
those who often have come from dysfunctional relationships.
“Long-term Christian inmates still have things to learn in
the free world,” Fauss says. “They must suddenly adjust to making thousands of
decisions every day.”
Many ex-convicts, faced with real world choices for the
first time in years, stumble along the way. Transition can be jarring, and it
doesn’t take much for an inmate, who is handed only $50 upon release, to wind
up behind bars again.
The majority of Calvary Commission parolees complete the
nine-month phase of structured classes, followed by three months of ministry
practicum in conjunction with Church of the Living Hope, an Assemblies of
God-affiliated congregation 11 miles south in Tyler.
But some leave only a few weeks into the process, unwilling
to comply with rules such as no dating and no smoking. There’s no watching CSI
on television or listening to Snoop Dogg on iPods on the Calvary Commission
Yet the regulations aren’t overly oppressive. Phone calls
aren’t monitored. As time goes on, students earn the privilege of obtaining a
cell phone and car. Simple pleasures, such as a Saturday night outing to the
local Wal-Mart, are a big deal.
While affirming that God has a great plan for everyone,
Fauss believes the shift into anything, especially ministry, should be gradual.
“They really need mentors and discipleship to discover their
purpose,” Fauss says. “Many are tempted to pursue success, money and romance
At Calvary Commission, parolees can work up to 25 hours a
week at jobs around Lindale, such as home remodeling, landscaping and computer
programming. Students pay $995 over nine months to cover tuition, room and
The recidivism rate for those who stay is extremely low.
Compared to the 68 percent national average, only 12 percent of inmates who
spend a year at Calvary Commission end up in prison again. That number drops to
2 percent for those who complete a two-year course. Instead of back in prison,
they are more likely to become pastors, missionaries or entrepreneurs. Some,
such as Patrick Heese, end up joining Calvary Commission’s staff.
Heese had a bright future ahead of him as one of the top high
school senior basketball players in Iowa, with full-ride scholarship offers to
various colleges. But once he arrived at college he found something he loved as
much as hoops: alcohol, then cocaine. A car wreck fractured his femur in three
places and ended his basketball hopes. In his 30s, Heese spent two years
incarcerated for possession of cocaine. While locked up, he committed his life
to Christ. He believes his days as a Calvary Commission student kept him from
destroying his life.
“If I’d gone back home, my foot would have been tapping to a
jukebox in a bar right away,” Heese says.
After a decade on staff, Heese, 48, is an energetic dean of
men, worship leader, counselor and teacher. He screens candidates who apply to
live on the campus. Five years ago Heese married Cyndi Sublette, who had been
in and out of jails for possessing illegal drugs. She is assistant office
Women just released from prison sometimes go directly to
“The Refuge,” near Palestine, 70 miles south of Lindale. Another couple donated
the two-story former bed and breakfast three years ago. Half a dozen women live
in spacious, nicely furnished bedrooms. The same basic schedule and rules are
in place as for the men and women at Creekwood Ranch.
Less than two months after arriving at The Refuge, Cordia
McCowan knows she will need the full nine months to acclimate to a free society
she missed for nearly four years. McCowan, 50, says she is learning how to
consider the point of view of others.
“I recognize I’m not where I should be when conflicts come
up,” McCowan says. “I want to learn to deal with people. My first reaction was
not to ask God for help. I’ve got to get it together. I don’t want to go to
Back at the Creekwood Ranch, Joseph Monette has learned
about making amends. After 13 years of having no contact with his mother,
Monette, 34, sensed God telling him to write a letter to her. He thanked his
59-year-old mom for raising him, but included details about serving four years
in prison for transporting marijuana and cocaine.
“I had shame and guilt over all my failed expectations,”
Monette says. His mother phoned him upon receiving the letter. A month later
she visited him for three days at the Lindale facility, and for the first time
he talked about family history.
“I didn’t expect to hear back from her, but when I did, all
that stuff I’d been carrying was lifted,” Monette says. “I had worn so many
masks I forgot who I was.”
Paul Peterson, 39, has been on campus for a year and a half.
When not landscaping or repairing computers, he’s focused on an associate
degree, with hopes of returning to prison for ministry.
“So many men come out with the priority of finding a wife
and a job,” says Peterson. “But men need to build their foundation on God, and
the rest will follow. When I got here I had to learn a lot.”
Michael Hill is studying for an associate degree in biblical
studies. He drives ministry vehicles to parole meetings, church services and
shopping. The upbeat Hill served in the military, worked for the postal service
and has been a state accountant, but drinking alcohol, doing drugs and a
gunfight landed him in prison for the first time at age 49.
“I know what it’s like to feel empty and have no hope,” says
Hill, now 53. “But today I’m more alive than I’ve ever been.”
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal
Evangel and blogs at Midlife Musings (jkennedy.agblogger.org.)
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