Prison ministry offers second chance to ex-offenders

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by A.J. Ross

Three years ago Steven Williams, 29, was behind bars facing charges of first degree murder. Today, Williams is out on parole after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter for self-defense and is starting his life over with the help of a special ministry and support group at Allegheny Center Alliance Church on the North Side.

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PRISON TO WORK—Pittsburgh City Council President Darlene M. Harris presents Lindsay Hargrove, of Aftercare Jail/Prison Ministry, with a proclamation from the mayor’s office. (Photos by Gail Manker)

“They keep it real, they keep it solid, they’re just trying to say listen we know a better way to live life,” Williams said.

He was first introduced to the Aftercare Jail/Prison Ministry at ACAC during a parole class and has now been a part of the outreach program for the last seven months. With the help of ACAC, Williams has also been able to land a new job.

“It’s awesome you can come here and be like man I’m broken, I’m all messed up, my life sucks, can you show me a better way to do it…and they’ll do it,” he said. “I’m a testimony it works.”

Since its inception the Aftercare Jail/Prison Ministry at ACAC has served hundreds of ex-offenders like Williams all over the state. The goal of the ministry is to help ex-offenders and their families through the often difficult transition back into society, by offering support groups, mentorship, job and housing referrals, as well as legal assistance in addition to other services.

When Michael Gregory was released from prison last October, he says he felt right at home in the Aftercare Jail/Prison Ministry at ACAC.

“I fit right in…un­fortunately I’ve been back and forth to prison, unfortunately addicted to drugs, now I’ve been clean for 18 months,” Gregory confessed.

In less than a year Gregory has secured a new job and apartment and is now working with an attorney through ACAC to get custody of his son.

“They have so many resources here it’s phenomenal,” he said.

On Sept. 22 the Aftercare Jail/Prison Ministry at ACAC celebrated its 2nd anniversary with a special ceremony at Robinson Chapel. Pittsburgh City Council President Darlene Harris was also on hand to present a special proclamation of gratitude to ACAC for the impact the Aftercare Jail/Prison Ministry has had on the community.

John Stanko, an administrative pastor at Allegheny Center Alliance, calls the Aftercare Ministry “trench work” not for the faint of heart.

“It’s not the glamour side of ministry this is hand to hand combat,” he described.

Stanko spent several years ministering in prisons across Florida before arriving in Pittsburgh.

“You work with people on the inside and they show such promise and they’re making progress and then they come outside and they’re so fearful, they’re not really prepared to make the transition,” he said.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics more than two thirds of people released from prison will return within three years.

“The crime in our society is off the charts, but in our communities it’s just ridiculous,” said Lindsay Hargrove, who has spearheaded the Aftercare Jail/Prison Ministry at ACAC for the past two years. “The church is that institution that’s supposed to stand up and stand out.”

Hargrove’s passion for his ministry is rooted in personal experience after serving time in California during the mid-80s and battling drug addiction for several years.

“What I didn’t know is when I did that time in L.A. that was a crash course in criminal justice…I didn’t realize that almost 30 years later I’d be coordinating an aftercare jail and prison ministry.”

Hargrove now uses his experience to relate to others and credits the support of a dynamic team and word of mouth with the ministry’s success.

“We’re just hoping that we can be a bridge and be a model, and start a fire that will start to burn in various communities,” he said.

“People come out of jail and prison everyday and they don’t have nowhere to go to get love, support, accountability, or just somewhere where they can identify…and we serve a God of second chances.”

(For more information on the Aftercare Jail/Prison Ministry at Allegheny Center Alliance Church call 412-321-4333.)

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