Helping to break the crime/prison cycle

by Russ Pulliam

Posted on Saturday, December 21, 2013, at 12:42 pm

INDIANAPOLIS—Growing up in poverty and crime on the west side of Indianapolis, William Bumphus was in and out of jail and prison in the late 1960s and 1970s.

He’s been going back to prison ever since, but not for committing more crime. Instead he is trying to help others break the crime/prison cycle of his early life.

He runs The Jesus House for ex-prisoners in an old nursing home in a low-income section of Indianapolis and first meets most of the residents as he preaches the gospel of Christ in Indiana prisons.

He’s tackled one of the city’s biggest social problems for 30 years. Sometimes called recidivism, the problem is that about 5,000 prisoners come back to Indianapolis each year. More than half of them go back to crime. Other major cities face similar challenges.

Bumphus tackles the problem through commitment to Christ and a safe place to live.

Englewood Christian Church pastor Mike Bowling serves on the same side of town as The Jesus House, and the church has had ministry to ex-offenders. Bowling noted, “If a guy comes out of prison and has a safe and affordable place to live, where someone loves him and represents Jesus well, that is three-fourths of the battle of reentry.”

With a capacity for 46 men, The Jesus House doesn’t charge for the first few months, but rent is due once a man gets a job. “We do random drug drops,” Bumphus pointed out. “It teaches accountability.”

Residents have to attend Bible study. Bumphus doesn’t get big government grants for the house, which has an annual budget of about $125,000, with rental payments and charitable gifts. The ministry hopes to raise another $150,000 by next August for a balloon contract payment on the facility.

Bumphus and some staff are ex-offenders themselves—recovering alcoholics sometimes make the best counselors in Alcoholics Anonymous circles. Criminal life is a subculture not fully understood even by those who have been students of the subject with advanced degrees.

Dave Liebel, the director of Religious and Volunteer Services for the Indiana Department of Corrections, thinks this background can be an asset for Bumphus. “Here’s a guy who served time. He’s been one of the more consistent in reentry over the years,” Liebel said. “He could have formed a steering committee and researched best practices and all that and yet never actually gotten around to helping people.”

Bumphus grew up in the 1950s in what would be called an at-risk family in Indianapolis. He seldom saw his father. In the neighborhood, “drinking, fighting and just barely making it from day to day was the normal way of life,” he recalled in a short autobiography, You Can Be Set Free!

A brother and sister died from lead poisoning. He joined a gang and started into crime and drug abuse, going in and out of prison.

He tried reforming himself, but what worked best was a personal Bible study with other inmates at the county jail in Indianapolis in 1978. There he committed his life to Christ. After release, he started on the foundations of what has become Jesus House, helping other men find a similar spiritual remedy for a lifestyle of crime, combined with a place to live after leaving prison.

In his weekly Bible study at the house, Bumphus tells the men that they should not think of themselves as “ex-offenders,” but as “returning citizens.” He also teaches on the doctrine of new life in Christ, emphasizing such passages as Philippians 3:13-14, not dwelling on their past but on their new life in Christ.

He also emphasizes each man’s responsibility for his choices and is a vigorous critic of a victim mentality. “Before I got my mind renewed, it was always their fault,” he said. “We blame society. We blame them—the system, or whoever ‘them’ is. Satan tells us these lies, such as: ‘They won’t give me no good job.’ “

One of the most interesting features about Bumphus is his perseverance. He’s been consistent in staying away from the life of crime and drugs of his previous life. He also has been persistent in the heartbreaking ministry of seeking to help men coming out of prison and finding an alternative to a life of crime. He sees few of the men in the house going back to a life of crime, but he does not boast of 100 percent success.

He attributes his consistency to the Lord’s miraculous grace at the time of his conversion.

“If you focus on what God called you to do, and you are not in it for the money, or for the glory of people knowing who you are, then it is easier to keep going,” Bumphus said. “If you get sidetracked on money or pride, then you are left hanging.”

Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of the WORLD News Group board of directors.

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