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
The disciples, as they are called at COTS, respond by asking
questions, interjecting comments and occasionally applauding for a particularly
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
As this session ends, Rattray dashes back to his office for
a prayer service with the COTS pastoral staff, which includes several former
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
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
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
“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 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
“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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