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Notebook Lifestyle

Friends in need

Monday night ex-offender worship service at Brookside Community Church (Handout)

Relationships

Friends in need

A church helps former inmates by building relationships

“A friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17).

Let him be czar of the criminal justice system, and Indianapolis Pastor David Cederquist would issue court orders for at least one good friendship for each person coming out of prison.

Cederquist is pastor of Brookside Community Church in Indianapolis, an unusual inner-city effort to help former inmates find a new way of life.

Cederquist knows the sad pattern—too many get locked up, then go back to their old ways after release, losing family and friends. They don’t have a job or a place to live.

Sometimes it’s called recidivism, with as many as 70 percent of inmates returning to prison a second or third time. With several thousand inmates returning to Indianapolis each year, the church at 1035 N. Olney offers an unusual option. The package includes traditional church worship services, along with prayer and Bible study during the week. A separate community development corporation also offers job placement, a food co-op, emergency help, and a place to live, with two transitional houses in the neighborhood.

Behind all these efforts is something more foundational: a hope for at least one friendship for each person. “If you can find one person you can trust, behind that one person are many others in the church,” Cederquist said. “No significant change in life comes without a significant relationship.”

Cederquist didn’t learn this friendship theory in seminary, yet he gets some interesting support from the academic world of prison research.

From Baylor University, Byron Johnson wrote More God, Less Crime. Johnson recommends a mix of faith, friendship, and service for ex-offenders. “When people begin to work and mentor others and serve others, they tend to forget about themselves,” says Johnson. “That transforms them.”

At the Brookside church, Coi Taylor has found friends and is serving others above and beyond a court order. Facing possible time behind bars on a drug sale charge, Coi was put on house arrest and ordered to do 200 hours of community service.

At Brookside he was assigned to work under Landon Martin, who had grown up in the smaller community of Goshen, Ind. Landon was in charge of church operations, which includes renovations in the 110-year-old church building. As an African American from urban Indianapolis, Coi Taylor wondered about a small-town white guy as a supervisor. “I’d never heard of Goshen, Ind. Where’s that?” Coi recalled. “I had my fears over how he would accept me.”

He found more than a supervisor. “Landon started asking about me and my story, my mom, my dad, how I grew up with my grandfather. He really wanted to know about me, how I got involved with drugs. It was stuff no one else had really asked me about.”

Landon and his wife Lori had two children who were adopted, one African American, another from Africa. “That really impressed me,” Coi said. The friendship was a bridge when Coi got discouraged, under house arrest, sometimes tempted to return to his old life. He had to be hospitalized with a broken foot a few months later.

“Was the friendship with Landon really real?” he wondered. “Landon came to the hospital with his family. They prayed for me. People from the church would bring meals over to me after I was out.”

Handout

Volunteers eat with ex-offenders working toward successful reentry. (Handout)

Yet the friendship has not been all maple syrup and honey. “In the streets, they say don’t knock my hustle,” Coi notes.

Landon and Coi practice Proverbs 27:5-6 and a deeper kind of honest friendship. “If you don’t have someone who is brutally honest with you, then you have people telling you the unreal, the lies, the falsehoods,” Coi said.

Coi is thankful for the Brookside job. He hopes the court will reduce his house arrest time from four to two years later this year. He steers away from the street life that he lived, and he’s a role model for younger boys from the neighborhood. But a key ingredient is friendship with Landon and others at the church. “Friendship is the most important thing, especially when you can be honest and you feel that they care about you,” he says.

Church member volunteers are vital. Sean Cook was attracted to Brookside after growing up with a father who was police chief in the small town of Decatur, Ind. In that kind of community his father knew many of the people he arrested. “It gave me a sense of justice and also some thinking about reconciliation,” he said.

After a commitment to Christ in college, Cook came to Indianapolis for work in computer technology. He befriended a father of six children, a former inmate, hoping to help him find a new path in life. The family lived in a high-crime neighborhood. Sean was learning much about life on the other side of the tracks. “He needed a friend and the hope that comes with a friendship,” Sean said. “We were very different, but we could both see our identity as broken in Christ. Everything he focused on was survival.”

Tragically his friend was murdered. “It’s the unfortunate reality for people who live in high-crime areas,” Sean said. “God used it as a catalyst to get me involved with Brookside and reentry.”

Sean serves as a bridge coach in the Brookside ministry—or a mix of an elder, deacon, disciplemaker, and friend.

For Sean or Landon, the challenge is discerning who wants the long-term help of the church. Success comes one day at a time. There are no magic spiritual formulas in this kind of ministry.

“We say let’s just walk it out together,” Landon says. “Are they sincere in wanting to change their lifestyle? Do they continue to show up? Will they walk in community and accountability with us?”