Local churches lift the lives of homeless, incarcerated
On Sept. 12, Jeff Clontz walked out of Haywood County Jail a free man. It wasn’t his first time, though. Jail, release and failing to pay child support comprised a cycle he knew well, but this time was different. When Clontz left the jail, he left behind more than just physical bonds. His spiritual bonds were gone, too.
“It’s a transfer of life, period,” he said. “I had been not so good for so many years. A whole new life started over.”
The 45-year-old has been in and out of jail for the past 15 years, with a seven-year period of homelessness in Hickory thrown in also. He wanted more, but didn’t have the people in his life — or the God — to show him how to get it.
That’s when he became involved with Hands Up Restoration Transformation, a group of Christians from various area congregations who make regular visits to the Haywood County Jail. Before long, the Bible studies they led were the highlights of Clontz’ week, and he listened hungrily to every word. When Hands Up held a tent revival for the inmates in August, Clontz was rebaptized, recommitting himself to the faith his grandmother had tried so hard to instill in him as a child.
“Used to, I wasn’t really going to sit down and try to talk to the good Lord. I didn’t have him in my life at all.” But now, Clontz said, “I read my Bible all the time. I’m trying to find a church over here. I wouldn’t have thought about this a year ago.”
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Since his release, Clontz has been working at T&S Hardwood in Sylva, making enough to rent his own two-bedroom apartment and pay his bills. He’s trying hard to live a changed life, but he freely admits that he wouldn’t have been able to do it on his own.
“If it wasn’t for (Hands Up), I wouldn’t be where I am, and I wouldn’t have what I have right now,” he said.
Rocking the jailhouse
For the leaders of Hands Up, helping people like Clontz is a driving passion with roots more than 30 years old. When Jim Haynes joined Gideons International — an evangelical Christian group probably best known for placing Bibles in hotel rooms — in 1987, the organization’s Haywood West Camp already had a ministry leading Bible studies in the Haywood County Jail. Haynes had no interest in that particular facet of the group’s activities, but when his friend Guy Angel invited him along one evening in 1994, that all changed.
“I did not want to go, but I couldn’t tell him no, so I said, ‘OK,’” Hanes said, explaining that he figured he’d be able to come up with a good excuse before it was time to go. “I came up with no excuse and I started, so that was in May of 1994. I’ve been going ever since.”
Since then, the Tuesday evening Gideon studies have grown into a full-blown ministry. Hands Up now offers Bible studies on multiple nights of the week, and since Mother’s Day weekend this year, they’ve been inviting a rotation of pastors from area churches to give a worship service every Sunday morning. It’s hard to count everyone involved, Haynes said, but roughly 100 volunteers from 17 area churches are involved in the studies and Sunday services. In a jail that typically holds about 120 people, as many as 80 attend on a given Sunday.
At the tent revival, held Aug. 8-10, 85 inmates chose to come. Of those, 46 were baptized, an act that symbolizes one’s commitment to following Christ.
“Just to see some of those who were shackled raising their hands, and to see men and women who were baptized while they were shackled, knowing that even though they had physical bonds, they were set free … that was heavy,” said Jason Ledford, one of the group’s leaders.
It was a seminal moment for the Hands Up crew, but they had already realized that further growth would require moving beyond the jailhouse walls.
Ledford and his wife Kristin were relative newcomers to the ministry, joining after their ministry to homeless people, Potter’s House Rescue Mission, morphed into an effort to minister to incarcerated people. They gave the organizational structure of Potter’s House to the leaders of jailhouse ministries in Haywood County, the goal being to create a new organization, Next Steps, to help incarcerated people make a healthy transition from jail to the outside community.
Because no matter how strong a person’s desire for change, they sometimes need help to make it last. That’s especially true for people who have been incarcerated, Ledford said, because when you’re out on the curb with nowhere to go and nothing to eat, you go back to the people you know. For people who have been incarcerated, what they know is often the thing that got them in trouble to begin with.
That was the case for David, a young man who had once been a child in a church Ledford pastured. As an inmate, he ended up getting saved at the revival before his release.
“His words to me [after his release],” Ledford said, “were this: ‘Can you help me find some work? I’m straddling the fence. I don’t want to go back to my old life, but I’m tired of being hungry.’”
That could easily have been the case for Clontz, because when he got out of jail, he had nothing. He couldn’t activate his phone, put a security deposit down on an apartment or get a hotel room. He had no idea where to start looking for a job and knew no one willing to hire somebody with a record. Hands Up helped on all those counts, gaining a lasting involvement in Clontz’s life and a lasting impression on his heart.
“It showed me there are people out there like them that really do want to help somebody like me that was locked up,” he said.
For Clontz, support from the Heads Up crew was key, but he still had to handle much of the transition on his own, coming home each evening to an empty apartment and the choice to continue pursuing his new life or to give it up for something seemingly easier. Without hesitation, he agrees that living in a transitional home first, where he could meet with other Christians daily and get the training he would need to succeed on his own, would have helped him immensely.
“We want to be a clearinghouse, a place where they can get food, a place where they can be safe and have shelter,” Haynes said. “Then we will have resources and match it with the person.”
Because, Ledford said, circumstances are really the only thing separating him from the people his ministry serves. As a Christian, he believes he has a duty to do whatever he can to love them through to the other side of those circumstances.
“It makes you realize how fragile life is, how any of us can be in the same place these inmates are,” Ledford said. “I hope it makes us more Christ-like, more loving and more representative of his grace and compassion.”
Jail isn’t the only place where that fragility of life crops up.
Into house and home
Next Steps jumped at the opportunity to headquarter their fledgling organization in the old prison, but they weren’t the only ones. If all goes as planned, the prison will also become the new site of Haywood Christian Emergency Center, a shelter for homeless people that was born out of the recession of 2008. Temperatures dropped in sync with the economy, and a group of Christians from area churches became concerned when they realized there was nowhere for the newly homeless to find shelter at night.
“About a dozen of us, we had one meeting,” said Nick Honerkamp, pastor of New Covenant Church in Clyde. “We said, ‘We can make something happen.’ At that meeting $7,000 was thrown on the table, and we said, ‘Let’s start this week.’”
They began planning right away, and three weeks later they hosted their first group of five guests in a house on Covenant’s property. Within a few weeks, the shelter had moved to the Haywood Baptist Association’s Camp New Life in Waynesville, capable of housing 21 people per night. The group made a five-year agreement to operate there during the six coldest months of the year, and they began shuttling guests to the camp each night from the Community Kitchen in Canton and Open Door in Waynesville, bringing them back in time for breakfast in the morning.
“We don’t duplicate any services,” Honerkamp said. “We just fill the gap.”
But the shelter provides more than just warm beds. For many, it’s a springboard to a new life.
“It’s not just a traditional shelter where we’re giving them shelter,” Honerkamp said. “We’re trying to communicate, trying to engage with them.”
In effect, they’re trying to show guests at the homeless shelter what Hands Up showed Clontz: that there are people who care, that differences in people’s circumstances don’t translate to differences in their value. As many as 40 different area churches are involved in any given season, taking turns transporting guests to and from the shelter and providing a nightly worship and devotional time.
With so many churches involved, the organization multiplies its ability to connect individuals with the resources they need to become self-sufficient.
“When you have fresh people every week, you have fresh excitement every week to want to help them,” Honerkamp said. “I think one of our biggest strengths [is] when you’re partnering with this many partners you have more resources than when one organization takes over and says, ‘We’re going to run this.’ We just have so many more resources because nobody is trying to take credit for it.”
Case in point: Of the 442 different people the shelter has helped since it opened, 210 found a home by the end of the season in April.
“It’s all about how we view people as being created by God,” said Wilson Strickhausen, a member of the shelter’s board. “We try to surround them with God and tell them that they’re worthwhile people.”
“They’ve fallen into that expectation [of not having worth],” said Russ McLamb, shelter director. “Through God’s grace they see [that] no, I’m not that person. They start to believe in themselves again. They start on that path to taking the steps needed to become a different person.”
The shelter workers have seen a lot of people start walking on that path over the past five years. They’ve seen people give up pills, alcohol and drugs for a relationship with Jesus. They’ve seen them find jobs and their own places to live. They’ve even watched some guests come full circle to become volunteers at the shelter.
“The Open Door and the Shelter were like Noah’s Ark to me, God’s way of sparing my life and helping me through tough times,” one such guest named Chris wrote for the shelter’s webpage. “That’s where He taught me to fully trust Him and know that He is working. I would like to give back to the people who helped me by joining them in their efforts to help others. Like Peter said, ‘Silver and gold have I none but such as I have I give.’”
The shelter also provides accountability and consistency. Guests have to show up to catch the shuttle, attend devotional and worship, put their lights out by 10 p.m. and do their chores in the morning. They also have to take a breathalyzer test to prove they haven’t been drinking. Shelter volunteers often see guests make dramatic lifestyle changes in response.
When the shelter closes at the end of April, though, that structure disappears, and some shelter guests regress back to where they were to begin with. So while the shelter has done a world of good in its five years of existence, Honerkamp is looking forward to becoming a 12-month presence in the community and working synergistically with Next Steps.
“This has truly been one of the easier projects I’ve ever been part of,” he said. “It was truly birthed by God. It was truly graced by God.”
And the hope is that with a better venue to show that grace, all three organizations—Haywood Christian Emergency Center, Next Step and Open Door, which is deciding whether to move its food services to be near the other two ministries — will be better able to serve people like Clontz, who have the will to change but need the tools. Fully equipped by his friends at Hands Up, Clontz is a changed man, four months out of jail with his life on a track headed far away from the jailhouse.
“Now that they’ve helped me out,” Clontz said, “I look forward to going to work and coming back here to my place.”