BOONVILLE — The sounds of laughter and easy conversation fill the basement of Nelson Memorial United Methodist Church, where members of the congregation sit around three tables with inmates from the Boonville Correctional Center. They’re enjoying a breakfast of home-style pancakes, bacon, fresh fruit and juice.
It’s not an unusual thing to have inmates at the church. In fact, it’s just the opposite. For the past 12 years, the Nelson Memorial United Methodist Men have worked with inmates through the annual Restored Justice Program, a week of fellowship, prayer, reflection and community service that’s designed to help prisoners turn their lives around.
It’s a popular program at the prison. Twenty-five inmates this year indicated an interest in participating; 10 were chosen after a voluntary screening process.
“It’s all volunteer because it is a Christian program, so we cannot force anyone,” said Tom Maxwell, a member of the Methodist Men.
During the week of Sept. 10, the inmates met daily at Nelson Memorial. The schedule is simple: breakfast, a devotional session, then a shift at the work site, with lunch at midday. This year the group took on multiple tasks. At the city’s Harley Park, they focused their efforts on the baseball diamonds, working on bleachers and backstops at Cal Ripken Field and creating a “bunker home” for players and cleaning the dugouts at Twillman Field. They also poured a new sidewalk around one of the park’s shelters. Others sealed and stained a wooden wheelchair ramp at the YMCA and painted the inside of the building.
Although the Restored Justice Program doubles as a community fix-up project, the chores performed by the prisoners are in many ways the least important aspect of the week. For a lot of the inmates the work is a great release.
Robert Brown took a brief respite from his work on the YMCA ramp to talk about his experience.
“It’s a nice break from prison,” said Brown, the first inmate to participate in the program for three consecutive years. Brown said he knows that those who go through the program are far less likely to return to prison once they’ve been released.
“It involves the whole community,” said Elvin Farquhar, project manager and president of the Methodist Men. “That’s what so great about this program.”
Of the 120 inmates who have gone through the program, 90 percent of those that stay in contact have yet to revisit the prison system, Maxwell said.
The effort’s success lies in the community involvement, which begins with breakfast each day. At 6 a.m., the Methodist women who teach Sunday school come in to prepare the food, which is a far cry from what the inmates are used to getting behind prison walls.
On Wednesday, it was Nancy Ward’s turn to lead the breakfast effort. An energetic woman bubbling with enthusiasm, Ward has volunteered with the Restored Justice Program each of the past 10 years, and she’s always excited when this time of year comes around.
“It’s very uplifting for us, just getting to talk to the group and realizing they’re people like us and knowing that we have a common bond with Jesus Christ,” Ward said as she helped clean the church kitchen.
The seating at breakfast shows no separation between the community members and inmates. They share accounts of the week and wander into stories from their childhood. It’s bonding time; after only a few days, the inmates and community members become like family.
Hessie Watts, whose Sunday School Seekers prepared the Friday breakfast, said she gets more from the program than she puts into it.
“It’s very gratifying because you know you’re reaching somebody, and it can change their lives,” Watts said.
After breakfast, the men move to a small meeting room for a devotional time. David Wrenn, an insurance salesman who coordinates the sessions, makes sure the men are fed both “physically and spiritually before they go out into the work place.”
Wrenn arranges for a different lay pastor to lead the devotion each day. On Wednesday, it was his turn.
Wrenn, a mid-sized, middle-aged man who speaks to the inmates in a soft and reassuring tone, led his impromptu sermon with a word for the inmates to think about: “resolve.” Reading from a worn, leather-bound Bible full of highlighted text, he took a passage from the Philippians and encourages conversation. He used the example of David in the Old Testament to show that even great people can fall short in God’s eyes.
The men give Wrenn all their attention, some leaning forward as if to absorb as much inspiration as they could from the conversation. They share their thoughts: If God could give David another chance, surely he could do so for them.
Church member Scott Nickerson attended the devotional and volunteered to work with the inmates for three days. On Friday, while the inmates poured the shelter sidewalk, he was right there with them, his feet covered with the wet concrete as he helped smooth it into place.
“I love it,” Nickerson said. “They are a great group of men.”
Each day, after about two hours of work, the crews broke for lunch, served each day by members of a different Boonville church. During the meals, they enjoyed another sermon or devotional led by a minister or lay pastor before getting back on the job.
Throughout the week, several baseball players from Central Methodist University joined the inmates and church members for afternoon work sessions. It was their first time volunteering for the cause and a sign that community involvement in the program is growing.
Justin Mahaney, a fast talker and one of the most colorful characters among the inmates, is scheduled for release from prison later this year. He said the town’s contribution to the program is “amazing,” and he appreciates the acceptance the inmates receive. He talked about his experience while several of his colleagues took a smoke break after breakfast on Wednesday.
“I think it’s awesome,” Mahaney said. “The opportunity we’ve had to (enjoy) fellowship and the things we’ve given back to the community is tremendous. It’s just great to be around people who don’t judge you for your past, because not everybody on the inside of jail is bad.”
That’s exactly what the Restored Justice Program is all about.
“The purpose of the project,” Maxwell said, “is to show the inmates that there are people in the community who love them and care for them, so when they get out they’ll have support.”
Mahaney, who is originally from Fulton but will live in University City once he’s released, said he would miss the camaraderie once the week had run its course.
“It will be bittersweet,” he said, “(but) I definitely will come back next year to be a part of the program and see it from another perspective.”
Inmate Ryan Tichenor was participating in the program for the first time this year. He couldn’t wait to share his enthusiasm about the project.
“This is a blessing that we were chosen to come and give back to the community,” Tichenor said one morning before heading out for a day of labor. “It’s a good feeling to know when I come out I’ll have good church-slash-family support.”