Ava’s Story

November 22nd, 2011 by admin

This is another installment in the stories shared during our Prison Ministry Social Justice service.

It started with Sheron and Desi. And visits to Fluvanna Women’s Prison. And preparing for Sheron’s homecoming. And joining Joan and Dell at Albemarle/Charlottesville Regional Jail in providing career counseling to inmates.

Then as a Case Manager for the Workforce Investment Act. That program served adults who received food stamps and/or lived below the poverty level. With an active case load of 60 adult clients, over 50% had criminal convictions, most of them felonies. All clients had done their time. All had been trying to make it in a particularly bad economy in a community that was looking for job candidates with higher levels of experience, education and NO criminal record. A presenting situation frought with disappointment and frustration.

My clients were people like you and me. People who couldn’t undo what they had done. With regrets and heavy burdens. With financial woes. With hopes and dreams. Some with families. And while Charlottesville is now known as the City of Second Chances for ex-felons, removing barriers to employment and preventing recidivism will be a major undertaking for years to come.

Through the Charlottesville Dialogue on Race, there is a Prisoner Re-Entry Committee that has been active in getting the Second Chance Resolution passed by the City Council. It was instrumental in the first Re-entry Summit which was held in April and attended by a many ex-offenders. That Committee arranged for a panel discussion of prison literature “The New Jim Crow”, by Michelle Alexander, that was taped and runs on our local TV channel. In the weeks ahead, it will publish a resource guide to be provided to ex-offenders as they are released into our community. Governor McDonnell has embraced change for ex-offenders and has charged committees at the state level to tackle some of the most difficult issues. Local governments are participating as well.

Sticking my nose into all of this has caused me some surprise. The issues facing ex-offenders are situations that I can embrace and want to do something about. I don’t recall giving my voice to other programs for which I volunteered. I can empathize with an ex-offenders reality. I learned:

1. If I have been convicted of a felony, all court costs and fines that I owe will be held against my drivers’ license. Until I pay those fines, usually in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars, I cannot drive, but must rely on friends, family, taxi or bus to get me to and from. If I live in the city, my job location must be somewhere on the bus line or I’ll need to walk. If I rely on public transportation or JAUNT to get me to work, I will be late many times, and may lose my job as a result.

2. If my family resides in public housing, the nature of my conviction may bar me from living with or even visiting my family. This may be the only place I can call home, so I couch surf, live at the Salvation Army if beds are available, or live on the streets. If I take the chance of visiting my family, I may wind up back in jail.

3. I may be on parole or probation and if so, must report to my parole or probation officer. If I fail to find employment 90 days after my release, I will have violated my parole and wind up back in jail.

4. If my conviction was drug related, I will not be eligible to receive food stamps.

5. If I am not a high school graduate and did not pursue a GED while incarcerated, chances of my getting employment are slim to none.

6. My conviction(s) will preclude me from being considered for professions in which the crime was a barrier crime. That list is long.

7. I might have a valid drivers’ license and a junker automobile, but upkeep, insurance and the price of gas, makes me crazy. If I don’t have a job, I don’t drive. If I can afford the auto, I can’t afford the child care costs so that I can hold down a job, buy groceries and provide for my family.

8. As an ex-offender I can’t vote unless I go through a laborious, painful process. If I had been released in California, I could vote on the day of my release.

9. Going back is easier than staying out.

Prisons are big business and more are being built to warehouse members of our community. The number of people who are incarcerated has grown exponentially over the past 25 years. Racism is alive and well as proven by the statistics that show the majority of individuals who are incarcerated are African-Americans. Are we as a people engaged in “The New Jim Crow”? Just how far have we come?

My time and energy spent with those who are incarcerated and with those who are back in our community has been an important part of my life. Should you have an interest in becoming involved in prisoner re-entry in some small way, please speak with me.

Ava Baum

My Prison Story

November 14th, 2011 by admin

I remember the first time I went into a jail—Cook County Jail, in Chicago, IL, one of the largest jails in the world. I was an 18-year-old student at a Bible college, and a group of us boldly went regularly to the jail. We believed the prisoners were unsaved and that we needed to “win them for Christ” and help them get converted. I was there to help them, bring them a blessing, and help save their souls from hell.

Some years later, my husband, now a chaplain at CCJ, started a school for prisoners. I facilitated a Bible discussion group every Friday night, bringing in and training other volunteers. By now, I had been changed by the very people I had been seeking to change.  In seeking to bless, I became blessed.

I learned that the people in jail were much more like me and other volunteers than they were different from us. Of course, our circumstances were different and maybe we had made different kinds of mistakes. But, I found they became my friends, and I enjoyed sharing my life with them and having them share their lives with me. Several times, we had former prisoners live in our home. We had a slogan, “The worst part of going to jail is getting out.” That’s because housing and jobs were so difficult for these mostly severely disadvantaged youth from Chicago’s inner city.

Over the past half century, I have had the privilege of going into jails/prisons all over the U.S., training volunteers, conducting seminars, teaching classes, and meeting one-on-one and writing Bible studies, plays for prisoners, and training manuals for volunteers.

I have always found prisoners to be gracious, cooperative, positively responsive, grateful for any assistance, and truly happy to have people visit them. Most of them are like the people in this room. It has always been a great joy for me to go into a jail/prison, despite the depressing surroundings and circumstances.

I urge you to take advantage of volunteer opportunities at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail and at Fluvanna Prison. You will be blessed beyond measure.

Dell Erwin


Pen Pal

November 7th, 2011 by admin

Here’s the second in our series of personal reflections shared during our Prison Ministry Social Justice Sunday service

My friend Heidi was very active in prison ministry at the church we had recently joined.  She said she had too many people to correspond with and asked me if I would like to write to one of her friends.  I agreed, and started a correspondence with a person in prison in Arizona.

This man and I corresponded for more than a year.  I would write to him and would get a letter back immediately, always putting me in the position of feeling I was behind in my correspondence.  I remember receiving from him an Easter card and a Thanksgiving card—the only two I ever got.  I knew he had robbed a bank with his brother who was also in the prison.  He had written that after robbing the bank, something happened but he couldn’t remember what.

Basically, he said his life was extremely boring and he really wanted to know all about my life.  I was going to seminary at the time so I wrote about my studies and my family.  He always wrote back with positive comments about what I was doing.

I had not heard from him in about two months and was driving in my car listening to a newscast.  An item came on that a man in Arizona had been executed and the German government was protesting because the victim held dual citizenship with the US and Germany.  It was my pen pal!  I pulled over and started shaking and crying.  I did not know he had been facing death.  Never has the death penalty seemed more senseless and cruel and wasteful.

Barbara Brecht

Dr. Daphne Keiser, Clark Elementary School principal

November 7th, 2011 by admin

Dr. Keiser talked about several Clark Elementary School initiatives when she addressed the congregation November 6. When interviewing candidates for teaching positions they put the person in an actual class to observe. They had instituted co-teachers for the third grade and hoped to add them for other grades. Many after-school activities were offered four weekdays such as cooking, drawing and newspaper work. Because of a 21st Community Learning Center Grant, tutoring and outdoor recreation were offered four weekdays. This had a health and food component to teach healthy living as well as service learning in the community. To focus on the importance of college, one day a month, faculty wore something from their college and had conversations with students about setting goals. Clark had strong volunteer support from PVCC, JABA and UVa’s Madison House. She welcomed Sojourners as volunteers and asked for our prayers for her as she led the school with which she had already fallen in love.

In addition to registering Giant grocery cards so percentages of sales go to the school we’ve begun collecting Box Tops for Education. A church neighbor had asked us to participate along with other area churches. Last year over $300 was raised simply by the efforts of the school families.

Clark Elementary School principal for SJ Sunday

November 2nd, 2011 by admin

Our next Social Justice Sunday is November 6. Dr. Daphne Keiser, the new principal at Clark Elementary School, will deliver our Social Justice Moment outlining for us additional ways we can connect with the school. At the beginning of the school year we donated supplies, specifically focusing on the classroom of a Clark teacher with Sojourner ties. We’ve recently started gathering sign-ups for Giant Food’s program to channel percentages of store purchases to designated schools.

Prison Ministry Social Justice Service

November 1st, 2011 by admin

On October 23rd Sojourners PMSJ group led the annual service focusing on people who are incarcerated. This year several members of the group shared their personal experiences. Here’s one from Sojourner, Warren Brecht.                   


I met Cherry through Barbara.  She had visited him in a prison group setting in upstate New York once a month for several years.  When released, he called us and invited us to lunch at his apartment which he shared with his wife Thelma whom he had married while in prison.  Thelma was an RN.

During his 25 years in prison, he had completed his GED, Associates, Bachelors and Masters degrees. He was also certified as an HIV counselor.  He came out of prison with hardly any clothes and I cleaned out my closet to provide him with shirts, khakis, and shoes etc.

When we arrived at their apartment, I was greeted by a very warm, kind man. Cherry was very easy to be with, and we were both Yankee fans. He was intelligent and articulate. He had just been out for two days and you can imagine how strange the world was to him. He couldn’t tell one car from another or how to get on a bus or subway. 

We were about the same size and we went into the bedroom to try on the clothes I had brought.  He came across to me as someone who clearly wanted to grow intellectually, improve himself and contribute to society.  I asked him what he had been in prison for and he said murder. Cherry was not my idea of what a murderer should act like. 

I found that knowing Cherry was a positive experience and not what I had anticipated.  It made me wonder what other young men who had committed serious crimes in their youth were like as they aged.  I would like to thank Cherry for opening my eyes.

Pride Sunday

May 26th, 2011 by admin

Sojourners will celebrate Pride Sunday June 26 when we honor those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and their families. The service of Acceptance and Affirmation will feature a speaker and music by the Sojourners Band. Our Open & Affirming Social Justice Group facilitates this annual service.

Social Justice Sunday

May 26th, 2011 by admin

The next regularly scheduled meeting of Sojourners Social Justice Groups is July 10 after worship. These groups are open to anyone who would like to participate. If you’re new to the church or simply haven’t decided on a group yet, feel free to drop in on one or more of the meetings to find out what’s happening.

Flourishing Flowers & Children

May 26th, 2011 by admin

The Eco-Justice Outreach group is delighted to announce that the sale of organic tulip bulbs exceeded our goal by almost 30%, raising a grand total of $330 to give in support of the children’s programs at Charlottesville’s QCC Farms!  The funds will enrich children’s lives and strengthen their connections to the Earth by helping pay for organic gardening activities, healthy snacks, outings, and 4-H camping.

Heartfelt thanks to all who participated, and especially to M.N. for providing a display of informational photos, a bouquet from the QCC garden, and beautiful hand-painted gift cards.

Collections for Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women

May 26th, 2011 by admin

For many years at Christmas, Sojourners has participated in an in-gathering of hygiene items as well as Christmas and all-occasion cards for inmates of the Fluvanna County Correctional Center for Women.  We join with many other churches and organizations in this collection. This year we began the drive in May and will collect items throughout the remainder of the year in order to meet the large demand.  A list of needed items is available at the church. This initiative is spearheaded by the Prison Ministry Social Justice Group.