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Prison ministry offers fresh start, faith

Prison ministry offers fresh start, faith

Missions and Outreach

They live in a place of abundance, both economically and ecologically. But they heard a cry for help from a nearby community and responded.

A bridge separates pristine St. George Island from Eastpoint and Apalachicola in Franklin County. For members of St. George Island United Methodist Church, filling the gap between their relatively private and protected community and the Panhandle mainland means more than crossing Apalachicola Bay.

The Fresh Start Visions transition house in Charleston, S.C., provided a model for Franklin County for providing a similar program for those recently released from prison.

At the urging of their pastor, Rev. Brian Brightly, they seek to deliver the Word of God and make disciples of Jesus Christ by working outside their comfort zone.

With a population of nearly 12,000, located east of Panama City and south of Tallahassee, Franklin is the third smallest of Florida's 67 counties.

On the mainland, Franklin is adversely impacted by methamphetamine drug trade and a lower than average high school graduation rate when compared to other schools in Florida.

Mission Ministry team leader James Donald, a retired U.S. Army major general and former commissioner of corrections for the state of Georgia, said the decision for St. George Island to serve was simple.

“When we think about what Jesus has asked us to do as disciples of Christ, it's hard not to go across the bridge and take up the challenge of what's going on in the rest of the county,” he said.

While the island provides much of the county's tax revenue, the mainland contains pockets of poverty leading residents to find ways to help these neighborhoods.

To that end, the church partners with Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith, elected in November of last year.

Smith, a member of nearby Apalachicola UMC, “had a vision to crush the county's methamphetamine problem,” Donald said.

The new sheriff asked members of St. George Island UMC and other churches to provide resources for a prison ministry for the county jail and to support the Fresh Start Visions initiative, an anti-recidivism program.

Fresh Start is a faith-based and character-building program founded in South Carolina that Smith endorsed for the jail. Ten people at St. George Island UMC volunteer to participate in the church's prison ministry. Members are actively involved in all aspects of the jail program and hope to expand to serve state prisons in the future.

Several volunteers teach inmates lessons on character development. Soon, members will be appointed to provide support for an effort to help inmates earn their general equivalency diplomas (GEDs). Meanwhile, worship services and Bible studies are conducted in the jail, with its typical population of 70 to 85 inmates invited to participate.

The majority, perhaps as many as 75 percent of the inmates, suffer from addictions, Donald said. Often they are hooked on methamphetamine, but also heroin, cocaine and tagadine. Church members recently helped set up an Alcoholics Anonymous program called Celebrate Recovery in the jail. A goal is to work with inmates after they are released.

“We're trying to work it on the front end and on the back end,” Donald said. “We just feel that this is what the Lord is calling us to do.”

Donald added that the church also operates a school ministry that sponsors a reading program for third-graders that they hope to expand to fifth grade.

Donald says research shows that if you teach children to read by third grade, their likelihood of graduating from high school improves.

--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.