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Church on the Street

A Phoenix First Assembly ministry helps ex-inmates transition back to society —
and avoid returning to prison

By John W. Kennedy in Phoenix

It’s 6:30 on a Friday morning, and Walt Rattray is halfway through a teaching session with dozens of men about developing sensitivity to the Holy Spirit.

Although the hour is early, Rattray doesn’t allow the men to get too relaxed. This isn’t a lecture; it’s an interactive lesson in life.

“You said, ‘I’ll never take drugs again,’ ” Rattray says to the men, who are mostly in their 30s and 40s. “How long did that last? I tried and tried to keep my commitments, and I couldn’t — until I was empowered by the Holy Spirit, until I relinquished control.”

For the past quarter-century, Rattray has been senior pastor of Church on the Street (COTS), which runs a residential discipleship program of the Dream Center sponsored by Phoenix First Assembly of God. His congregation isn’t typical: 85 percent of the 160 resident attendees have been paroled from prison or jail.

Nor is the ambiance a church’s customary wooden pews and shag carpet. COTS disciples live on the premises, a former four-story Comfort Inn and Suites Hotel where guest rooms have been converted into dormitories. Here residents stay for six months — and often for a year — before transitioning back into society. The rigorous schedule, which includes daily spiritual training, is designed to keep them from going back behind bars once they are on their own.

Rattray, decked out in blue jeans, burgundy cowboy boots and a red jacket emblazoned with a Church on the Street logo, speaks expressively and enthusiastically in the COTS sanctuary, the hotel’s former conference room. He doesn’t stay stationary on the platform. The trim pastor is a bundle of energy, gesturing demonstratively, changing his voice inflexion and stepping to the side of the wooden pulpit to make a point. He continually peppers the men with inquiries.

The disciples, as they are called at COTS, respond by asking questions, interjecting comments and occasionally applauding for a particularly salient insight.

With his history and temperament, Rattray is the perfect tutor in discipleship classes. He’s authoritative, yet transparent; humorous, yet intolerant of nonsense; demanding, yet compassionate.

“I was a mess, a drunk,” says Rattray, who has been sober 33 years. “I was wheeling, dealing, drinking and chasing. I failed at everything.”

At age 67, the tireless Rattray wakes up at 3 a.m. to prepare for the day’s messages. By the time he begins his 6 a.m. class, he’s already lifted weights in a gym and prayed for half an hour.

The classroom crowd is made up of Anglos, Hispanics and African-Americans; men who are obese and skinny, bald and ponytailed, covered in tattoos and unadorned. Most don’t mind the rugged schedule or daily tasks at the complex. They certainly don’t want to return to jail, especially in a county where the sheriff makes inmates live in tents, wear pink underwear and eat green baloney sandwiches.

At 7:20 a.m., Rattray is lingering to answer questions after class. He rushes to his next one-hour instructing assignment down the hall. This is an advanced, mixed-gender class. For the students, it’s an even more intense interactive dialogue than the one for beginners. No one is allowed to be a spectator. Again stressing the theme of relying on the Holy Spirit, Rattray calls a couple of disciples up to the podium to preach a five-minute sermon. Everyone in the room must recite a Scripture verse from memory.

“God wants to use broken-down people like us, the outcasts of society,” Rattray says. “We can overcome bondage to alcohol, cigarettes and prescription drugs.”

As this session ends, Rattray dashes back to his office for a prayer service with the COTS pastoral staff, which includes several former prisoners.

Immediately afterwards, Rattray presides over an hour-long class for two dozen women, most of whom recently have been released from being locked up. The pace is less frantic, the teaching more methodical and full of anecdotes, including the revelation that Rattray’s wife, Louene, has to tell him how to dress properly. Realizing many of these women have been used and abused by men, Rattray appears more like a tender, caring father figure.

In his younger days, Rattray had some experience mistreating women. Nine months after his wedding, he visited a fortuneteller, who told him to divorce his wife — which he did.

Two years later, Rattray saw an advertisement for spiritual healing and figured the meeting dealt with white witchcraft, to which he had become a devotee. It turned out to be a Christian service. By the end of the night Rattray had made Jesus his Savior.

Before long, Rattray began preaching on the streets. He ran into his ex-wife, who in the interim also had become a Christian. Today, Walt and Louene have been remarried for 31 years.

REALIZING THE DREAM

For most of its history, COTS existed as a patchwork of small houses in inner-city Phoenix. Two years ago, Tommy Barnett, pastor of Phoenix First Assembly of God, committed to putting the ministry under one roof. The church paid $4.5 million for the 192-room hotel. The top floor of the complex, with Mediterranean-revival style architecture, serves as headquarters for the Dream Center, which sponsors various community programs to aid at-risk youth, the homeless and needy families.

COTS occupies the rest of the facility. Men live on the second floor; women, on the third. The ground level includes the cafeteria, chapel, classrooms, prayer room and offices. Volunteers staff the first-level counseling center, health clinic, dental clinic, beauty salon and clothing outlet.

For the first six months, COTS is a boot camp of Christian basics, where rent is free and meals are provided.

The disciples live in identical rooms, which contain a bed, dresser, wardrobe, bathroom with shower and small kitchen area. Residents aren’t allowed to smoke, drink or fraternize with the opposite sex.

The 85 percent who choose to stay another six months receive advanced spiritual and financial counseling. Those in phase two are allowed to work a part-time outside job and may obtain a microwave, television set and phone. The few who stay another three months may gain full-time employment, such as carpentry, plumbing and roofing jobs. Those who receive an income are expected to pay $200 a month to COTS to defray room and board expenses.

In the past 15 years, 4,500 men and women have gone through the COTS discipleship program.

All disciples are expected to participate in ministry outreaches. Options include 26 jail services and a dozen prison services a week.

Besides learning spiritual truths, residents are expected to exercise regularly and do their share of chores around the facility. Disciples have one day off a week.

In addition to his other teaching roles, Rattray leads church services three nights a week as well as Sunday mornings. 

For the past two years, Louene has overseen the education program at COTS. Louene, who has a master’s degree and spent 22 years as Christian education director at Phoenix First AG, puts together individual curriculum study plans for disciples, who range from those barely literate to college graduates with multiple degrees. Disciples copy biblical Proverbs verbatim, read the Life in Christ manual by Tony Salerno and memorize Scripture cards.

“We try to help them get organized and have a structured life,” says Louene.

FROM PRISON TO STAFF

Charles Crouch is director of information technology and security at COTS. He has a master’s degree and worked for Fortune 500 companies. He also has a prison record resulting from hacking computers.

“Education didn’t keep me from hanging out with low people,” Crouch says.

Crouch admits having a bad attitude when he came to COTS as a disciple. He immediately wanted to repair computers. Instead, his supervisor handed him a bucket and mop. Lessons in humility paid off. Now, as a COTS staff member, Crouch teaches courses where men learn everything from repairing computers to designing Web sites.

“We want to give guys job skills so they know more than how to flip burgers,” says Crouch, 46. At the height of his career, Crouch made $75 an hour; now he earns $25 a week.

“I’m more joyful than ever before,” Crouch says. “I’m glad God arranged for me to get caught.”

Eddie Adorno left a full-time paid position as a prison chaplain to work as a COTS volunteer. He’s in charge of mentoring the 60 men in phase two.

“We’re trying to make a dent in that revolving prison door,” says Adorno, 40. “It’s one thing to see men walking with God in prison. It’s another thing to mentor them beyond the walls.”

Danny Palacios, who is Rattray’s assistant, came to COTS after 15 years in prison, half of it in isolation. He is involved in nursing home outreaches three times a week. His wife of 10 months, Stephanie, served time for armed robbery, but now helps with women’s discipleship at COTS.

One day in 2003 Palacios ran across a magazine advertisement for Christian literature that promised liberty from bondage: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

At the time Palacios didn’t fully understand the implication. But it caused him to examine his past life of heroin addiction and to contemplate his bleak future.

“Drugs were all I had done for 24 years — on the streets and in prison,” says Palacios, 45. “I was in desperate hopelessness.”

In his cell, Palacios asked Jesus to become his Savior.

Soon, a New Living Translation Bible arrived in the mail for him. Palacios hadn’t ordered it; he didn’t have any money as an inmate. The package had no return address label. Palacios began to read the Scriptures voraciously. He hasn’t been the same since. He is convinced that same kind of change is available to everyone who comes through COTS’ doors.


JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Midlife Musings (jkennedy.agblogger.org).

A video feature of this article is available at AGTV.

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