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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 program.

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 manager.

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 young men.

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 recommendation.

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 says.

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 campus.

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 immediately.”

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 board.

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 administrator.

THE REFUGE

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 prison again.”

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.)

E-mail your comments to tpe@ag.org.

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