By Stan Friedman
OLATHE, KS (June 3, 2013) – Lee Jost, pastor of Christ the Servant Evangelical Covenant Church, says his congregation has been eager to participate in various ministries to criminal offenders and their families because of its desire to offer “unsuspecting acceptance.”
The three-year-old church plant wants to surprise people with Christ’s love, Jost says. To that end, the congregation works with state and local corrections departments to offer two programs that offer that acceptance and help transform lives.
One is the Brothers in Blue Re-Entry Program, a Christ-centered, in-prison ministry at the Kansas Lansing Correctional Facility. The ministry was once part of the Chuck Colson network of Inner Faith Freedom Initiative, but was dropped in Kansas due to lack of funding.
One of the ways the ministry is being supported is by visiting local congregations, leading worship and interacting with the churches. The men are completing their sentences, and many work at Zephyr Manufacturing, a business owned by one of the church members that gives the incarcerated men a chance to learn job skills.
Brothers in Blue led the worship service and preached the first time they attended Christ the Servant. One of the men is in prison for manslaughter. He had driven a car during a robbery of a convenience store where the clerk was killed.
The store is located roughly a mile from the school where the church meets. “This man told us his story and said this is the first time he has been back to Olathe since his incarceration, and he asked for forgiveness for the damage he did to the community. It was a moving moment.”
Afterwards, church members had lunch with the group. “For many of us, it became a very sacramental meal, a covenant meal, where we understood more about God’s story of redemption through these men’s stories, and we became a part of that story through hospitality and compassion,” Jost says.
The Brothers in Blue worship at the church three times a year and preach on another Sunday. One of the former inmates now serves as a greeter at the church. Brothers in Blue recently helped the church and another faith-based organization conduct a free garage sale.
More people than just the incarcerated men of the program have experienced changed lives, says Jost.
Dennis Wright, who supervises some of the men, attended that first service. Afterwards, Wright approached Jost and told the pastor he would be willing to attend a church that would welcome “men like this.”
Wright has since given his life to Christ, invited his daughter, and connected Jost with his granddaughter, who is incarcerated. Wright’s wife, Carol, has invited her sisters, who now attend regularly, Jost says. Wright also is assisting with the congregation’s Strengthening Families program.
The church and a non-Covenant church plant work together with the Johnson County Department of Corrections to host and provide trained instructors for the 14-week program that serves families who have a juvenile or adult member completing a sentence.
Teens completing their sentences live in transitional housing – they are not locked up. They are released into the custody of their parents each evening to attend the classes.
Church members eat dinner with the guests. Afterwards the church members leave, and the families participate in a two-hour class that covers topics such as parenting skills, goal setting, communication, and substance abuse.
“Every week the families practice talking with one another,” Jost says. “It can be awkward at times. Families can be terse, and they often don’t know how to set boundaries.”
The Corrections Department asked Jost if his church would host the classes. He had interacted with officials while working on another community-related project. Although the course is not religion-based, the department wanted the churches to host it so families would have positive examples with whom they could interact and who also would provide continuing support.
The small congregation of about 40 people has been eager to engage in the outreaches. “This is a dream opportunity to work with the Department of Corrections,” Jost says. “It actually has contributed energy to the congregation. We haven’t had to sell it at all.”
The congregation has been involved in the community in other ways. Every third Sunday, it cancels its worship service so people can serve others in need. The church also packs food each week so low-income students from a local school will have food over the weekend.
Last summer, the church started a summer day camp it calls Discovery. Students come to the Santa Fe Trail Middle School, where the church also worships, and participate in a series of five day camps.
The curriculum includes healthy eating, exercise and fitness, drama, visual arts, and a day at the office. The church has partnered with local businesses including Garmin International and the Olathe Medical Center.
“The families that came to our program were families who would not have been able to afford summer programming for their kids,” says Jost.
The church is offering more than unsuspecting acceptance. It is offering new opportunities – and new beginnings.