Ministry offers ex-inmates avenue for change

RANTOUL — A former Holiday Inn Jr. on the village's south side could easily be named "The Second Chance Inn."

The former roadhouse does more than house people needing a place to stay. It's a 10-month stopping point for many former prison inmates wanting to turn their lives around.

"Every man deserves a second chance," says Peter Schneider, director of Jesus is the Way Prison Ministries.

The ministry works with paroled prison inmates and attempts to give them not only new skills for life but a change from the inside out. "The real satisfaction to me is seeing a man's life changed," Schneider said.

He visits eight prisons in Illinois, including one federal prison, and intermittently four county jails on a regular basis — not trying to drum up business but to tell inmates something many have never heard before, about the way of salvation through Christ. "We don't take offerings in the joint. We rely on donations from outside," including a fundraising banquet, Schneider said.

The men can't just show up at the door and ask for a room. Inmates must be paroled to the ministry after an intense application and interview process.

Roger Adkins of Pontiac was one of those who was accepted after initially being turned down. He soon realized the place wasn't for him.

Too many rules, he thought. He wanted to be out working, helping to pay off overdue bills. He couldn't wait to get out.

"It didn't seem like the place for me," Adkins said. "I found another place to parole to. In those three-four days I was waiting, man, Jesus came into my life. I felt like there was a battle going on inside me whether to stay or go.

"I was really feeling, 'What do I do? Is this place right for me?'"

Adkins said he kept asking Christ for a sign and was told the No. 1 sign was that he was initially denied entry, but on the day he received his denial, he received an application form and was then accepted.

Adkins said he is a changed man and eagerly takes part in all the activities from Bible studies to the Aftercare program.

Prison was costly for Adkins, he said, more than financially.

"It cost me my marriage; it cost me my family," he said.

"Now I have a whole new family in Jesus is the Way and with God. A year ago I wouldn't even be talking about God."

The late Jesse Mathes started the prison ministry in 1977 with an office in his house. The ministry was moved to a small office in Champaign, then to a larger space next to the Virginia Theatre and in 1997 to its current location.

The Holiday Inn Jr. closed after Chanute Air Force Base was shuttered in the early 1990s. Schneider said the owner opted to give the property to the ministry as a tax writeoff in late 1996. The place was in need of work, but Mathes was unfazed. He had a background in construction, as does Schneider. Two dilapidated buildings were demolished, and the place was fixed up. Upkeep is an ongoing project.

Today, the prison ministry can house 20 people in 10 rooms.

Mr. Mathes died in 2008, but the work continues. Schneider said Mr. Mathes had asked him to join him before he died.

Both could relate to the life Adkins had lived. Life without Jesus was always filled with trouble.

Now he's in prison in a different capacity — regularly preaching to inmates.

Schneider was converted in 1974 and was called to the ministry two years later. He served a church in Mahomet for 13 years and was involved in prison ministry before joining Jesus Is the Way.

He is a big believer in the power of Christ to turn lives around. He cited a study by Byron Johnson of Baylor University that indicates the U.S. prison recidivism rate (re-sentenced to prison within three years after parole) is "52 to 57 percent."

He said the rate of recidivism drops by 65 percent for inmates who do nothing more than attend a weekly Bible study after their release.

"To me, that's exciting. It's real," Schneider said. "As we track our guys (parolees who go through the 10-month program), 10 percent of them have criminal involvement again."

Schneider said prison life is no picnic.

"You have no idea the hopelessness ... in prison," he said. "It's a dehumanizing experience."

Jesus Is the Way gets "50 to 100" applications a month from prisoners asking to be accepted as parolees.

"What's crazy is how the word spreads in prison" about the program, he said.

The program seeks to teach self-restraint and holiness.

Participants regularly attend Bible study and go through the "Genesis Process for Relapse Prevention for Addictive and Compulsive Behavior" four days a week. Anger management training is also essential.

"(The study) roots into (a person's) past," Schneider said. "It's stunning how many kids have been sexually abused," which frequently results in unlawful behavior later. "Eighty-five percent of people in prison come from broken homes."

Raj Bhatti, director of the ministry's New Beginnings Aftercare Center, which is designed to help former inmates re-enter society, said the program is made for change. It helps participants "get out of their stagnant behavior," he said.

"Recovery is starting to trust again. The devil wants to wound people where they're gifted."

The focus of the program, Bhatti said, is to prevent people from "reattaching to their idols," whether it be drugs, drinking, sex, food.

They are taught Godly perspectives on authority. "Ninety-nine percent of prisoners have problems with authority," Schneider said.

"Forgiveness is a very big part," Bhatti said. "It frees us to move up. Otherwise we get stuck."

But all lessons don't focus on the inner person. Wednesday Medlen of Community Plus Federal Credit Union teaches financial management. John Henderson, a Jesus Is the Way board member, teaches mechanics. Classes in computer literacy are taught by Tom Cagle.

After a parolee arrives at Jesus is the Way, he goes through a two-week indoctrination period to "see if he fits here," Schneider said. If he does, the five-phase Aftercare program begins.

Residents are taught to make goals, how to function in the community, take part in community service and go to church. For five of the 10 months there, they are not allowed to work outside of the ministry, so they can focus on their training.

As Schneider put it, "they're working on themselves."

They do work on-site with such tasks as snow removal, their own housework and cleanup. In the winter they clean sidewalks for the elderly or infirm.

The leaders believe in their work.

Said Schneider: "God didn't create you to be in prison."

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