Wichita Saint Mark UMC sits in the corner of the 67214 ZIP code, which Rev. Robert Johnson calls the “No. 1 landing ZIP” in the city for released prisoners.
Johnson said 1,300 to 1,400 former convicted felons live in that area of central Wichita, and most, he says, are released into the community with little choice but to commit another crime and enter back into the vicious circle of prison.
But Saint Mark, the largest Black congregation in the Great Plains Conference, is partnering with a nonprofit organization that already has five Christian-based houses for released prisoners throughout Kansas, to give some of those former convicts a more solid future.
Working Men of Christ, a non-denominational group founded 10 years ago, has houses — all named for different men in the Bible — in Wichita, Neodesha, Manhattan, Topeka and Kansas City, Kansas.
If plans come through, and following the vote of the Saint Mark congregation, the sixth and seventh houses called Nehemiah Village would be built next year after a groundbreaking in the spring. It would be on two lots of land diagonally across the street from Saint Mark that was donated to the church.
Each house would have 10 men under the supervision of a director. Johnson said the houses emphasize structure and discipline. Residents are awake by 5 a.m., have devotion time, perform cleaning tasks, and have a Bible study. In the afternoon, residents are released to their jobs, to look for jobs, or to perform community service. They must return home by a certain time, have another devotion time, and sent to bed.
Two men would share a dorm-style room, with a bathroom for each pair of rooms. The houses would also include a kitchen, counseling room and a game/exercise room.
“They really have more structure than the average Christian living out there, because we’re in the process of helping them change their identity and not thinking about themselves the way they thought about themselves,” said Christie Summervill, chairman of the board of directors of Working Men of Christ. “No matter what your faith is, and even for people who don’t have faith, we realize that our actions are a result of our thoughts.”
While in the final leg of their prison sentence, inmates are recommended for the program by the Kansas Department of Corrections, prison chaplains and other leaders.
Johnson said participants must enter a discipleship program while behind bars.
“They have to prove this is a substantive commitment for them,” he said.
The former prisoners must commit to at least nine months in the house. Summervill said some have stayed as long as two or three years.
Summervill estimates that at least 400 men have gone through the program in its first decade. The recidivism rate (those who commit a crime again after being released) is 5% for those who have been in the homes, compared to a 77% national average.
“Whether you’re a faith-walker or not, the economics of getting behind a program like this is there,” she said. “You want them in your community alone, doing what we’ve been doing and locking them up 77% of the time? Or do you want them renewed with a new identity?”
Johnson became familiar with Working Men of Christ after a job fair at the church for former prisoners that took place not long after he began serving as pastor at the Wichita church in 2016.
“They understand the struggle those people will have to re-enter society, and how hard it is to do that and maintain hope,” Johnson said.
Nehemiah Village, he said, already has been endorsed by the area’s city councilman, the president of the homeowner’s association, and the Great Plains Conference, which has donated $2,000 in a grant through the Mercy & Justice office and will be listed as a missional partner.
Another partner in the project is Wichita State University, whose campus abuts the 67214 ZIP code.
Johnson said WSU will partner with Nehemiah Village for educational training, courses in entrepreneurship, and pathways to a degree program, as well as providing computers.
Summervill praised WSU’s enthusiasm about the project.
“They are investing millions and millions in the 67214 ZIP code and realizing that if they want to see their investment flourish, that reaching out and making social mobility and access to education more available to these people is in the interest of their mission as well as our mission,” she said. “We come together as a community.”
GLMV Architecture, which has designed WSU’s new Innovation Campus, will work with the contractors on the building of Nehemiah Village, Johnson said, for free. Plumbing, electrical and lumber companies that have previously worked with Working Men of Christ will offer their services for free as well.
Fundraising will begin Aug. 1 for Nehemiah Village with a secure donor website, Summervill said. Some donors may choose an engraved brick that will be placed on the property, she said.
The budget for the project is $2 million, which Johnson and Summervill said would also include $250,000 for the first year of operations.
Johnson said this is the best time to start working toward rehabilitation of criminals, as crime has increased in the Saint Mark neighborhood, including bullets that hit the church after a gang fight several weeks ago.
“The selling point is the people that you fear are already here,” he said. “We already see the signs of their presence.”
Johnson said the options for former prisoners to try to live a renewed life are limited in central Wichita.
“They get into bad places where the landlords don’t really care” about the property, he said. “They don’t have a way forward. No one wants them. Their families don’t want them, they can’t get hired, they don’t have a place to stay.”
Some landlords, Johnson said, won’t let a returning prisoner rent from them.
“If you don’t invest in that demographic to try to help them, you’re investing all that money in a place that has demonstrated a proclivity for crime and violence,” he said. “They will go against everything you’re building.”
The proposed Nehemiah Village, and all of the Working Men of Christ homes, perform a community service, Summervill said.
“This is a good thing for the entire community — the churched and the unchurched,” she said. “Do you want them ministered to, or do you want them out there without the aid? It’s a very, very exciting project, because it’s not just about building a couple of facilities that will house 10 people each.
“It’s about healing the community, healing the families that have been impacted.”
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