4:00 P.M. EST Sept. 23, 2010
Joy Block-Wright spent 18 months in federal prison for forgery.
Today she serves as director of Redemption Kids, a ministry for children and youth, ages 6 to 18, whose parents are incarcerated.
“I’ve always had Christ in my life,” Block-Wright said, “but I backslid very badly.”
During Block-Wright’s incarceration, her children lived with their grandparents, and it was tough.
“When you’re incarcerated,” she recalled, “the whole time you’re there, every day, all your thoughts are about your children.”
Her time behind bars, she said, was her “wake-up call.”
Sounding that call was Penn Avenue Redemption Church in Oklahoma City, a United Methodist congregation that for 15 years has supported inmates and their families by offering a diverse choice of classes and 12-step programs.
Each week a van picks up more than 150 inmates for three worship services. Perhaps most importantly, the Redemption Kids program, along with the summer New Day camp, reaches out to prisoners’ children.
Twelve-year-old Anthony Boyd — Block-Wright’s son — has thrived in Redemption Kids.
“It’s helped me stay out of trouble,” he said. “I hear a lot of stories from these inmates. I don’t want to talk to somebody that doesn’t know what I’m going through.”
The adults offer sage advice.
“Some kids,” Anthony explained, “want to be cool. But doing stuff like drugs or stealing or anything like that, that’s not cool.”
Along with fun things like dancing, Anthony’s sister Antonia, 10, said Redemption Kids teaches life lessons. “I like the church,” she said. She listens carefully to the sermons.
“I want to follow in (the leaders’) footsteps, and I won’t go to prison.”
When Block-Wright was released from prison, she and her children went to live at Exodus House, a re-entry program sponsored by the church.
“I heard about Redemption having a program,” she said. She had attended a United Methodist church in Tulsa, so she thought church involvement would be a good opportunity “to start building my life back again.”
Having Anthony and Antonia with her in an apartment “was exactly what I wanted and needed to keep me grounded,” she added.
After several months in the program, the little family was on its own. But that’s not the end of the story.
Block-Wright felt God’s nudge to help others in similar situations.
“I wanted to give back in some way, and God put it on my heart to start visiting in the youth department.” Eventually the youth director left, and Block-Wright was invited to take the position.
“I was more than happy to do so,” she said.
“I’ve always had a heart for children. I worked with the youth program at Wesley United Methodist Church in Tulsa. That’s my gift — to be able to work with children. But I can’t even explain the emotions when you’re away from them.”
Oklahoma statistics indicate that half of the children of incarcerated parents will end up in prison.
The Rev. Steve Byrd, Redemption Church pastor, is working to change that. He serves as associate director of criminal justice and mercy ministries for the Oklahoma Annual (regional) Conference.
Along with providing transportation to worship services, Redemption Church offers re-entry classes, Bible studies and faith-based recovery programs.
“We have several different classes that rotate,” he said. Courses focus on anger management, life skills, relationships and other topics.
“We know that if they relapse, then probably they’re going back to prison,” Byrd said. “So it is always our front line to provide recovery from alcohol and other drug addictions. We do that through recovery programs at Exodus House. Because I’m a licensed counselor, we’re able to make referrals when needed.”
Assistance with finding employment, obtaining a driver’s license and meeting medical and mental-health needs are at the top of the list.
Teenager Equandre Wofford spent several years as a Redemption Kids participant. Today he is a leader.
Both of his parents were incarcerated. He often wished they had considered the consequences of their behavior, especially how it might affect him.
He tries to keep his brother from following their parents’ example. Equandre warns him: “That’s going to get you killed, locked up, dead somewhere. Somebody (is) going to throw you away. Then they’re going to find you in the back seat of a car.”
Then, Equandre said, people will remember. “We told him not to do this stuff.”
Byrd echoes the importance of early intervention.
“Systemic incarceration is a real problem,” he said. “That means two and three generations are in prison.
“We’re always optimistic that if we can show (children and youth) some alternative lifestyle, some alternative decision-making skills, then perhaps they don’t have to be one of those statistics.”
Block-Wright feels she has been called into ministry.
“I know everybody has a different way of ministering,” she said. Her dream is to purchase a building in the neighborhood to convert into a youth center—“a safe haven” where Redemption Kids can continue to flourish.
“I want them... to follow God first. That’s number one because that’s going to be their strength, always, in life.”
*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or firstname.lastname@example.org.