Jesus promises to make all things new. But radical transformation seldom takes place overnight. Here’s one example of how a church came alongside an ex-prisoner through his baby steps toward lasting change.
“When he said that, I settled down,” says Pastor Ball, and he launched into his new prison ministry.When the metal door clanged shut behind him, Roger Ball flinched. It was the pastor’s first time in jail, and not something he would have volunteered for. But the chaplain at Florida’s Indian River County Jail had invited him to lead a Christmas service for the inmates. “Roger,” said a more seasoned volunteer as he wrapped an arm around the jittery pastor’s shoulders, “the only difference between you and them is that they got caught.”
In an upscale community like Vero Beach, Florida, most residents wouldn’t identify with the likes of criminals. But Pastor Ball and the members of Immanuel Church focus on the similarities.
“We’re all sinners, in need of God’s grace,” says Jerry O’Connell, a prosperous retiree from the automobile industry—also a recovered alcoholic, now 30 years sober.
So when Twain Rodgers started coming to Immanuel, after Pastor Ball visited him in jail, the congregation welcomed him and rooted for him.
Twain candidly divulged his history: a 23-year crack addiction, more than 30 felonies on his record, two prison stints, and numerous times in jail. But he was ready to turn his life around.
Twain attended Immanuel faithfully for several weeks, even standing up in the service one Sunday morning to profess his faith in Christ before the whole congregation. He was serious—just as serious as he’d been all the other times he had “accepted the Lord” in prison, in drug rehab, on the streets. Then right after the service, “I went home and got me some dope.”
After two decades of miserable enslavement to crack, “I couldn’t stop,” he says. After fighting with his girlfriend, Twain was once again arrested.
Committed for the Long Haul
When Pastor Ball met with him at the jail, Twain begged the pastor to bail him out. “Our ministry is to stand with you, help you, pray with you,” the pastor assured him, “but we will not bond you out.” Then he grabbed hold of Twain’s hands, “and I looked him dead in the eyes and said, ‘Let me tell you something, Twain Rodgers, I will never give up on you.’ And I saw something melt in him that day.”
“Nobody had ever said that to me before,” says Twain. “Everyone else had given up on me.”
Surprisingly, the judge gave Twain a year of probation—and a stern warning that if he messed up again, he’d be shut up in prison a long, long time. Twain threw himself into the life of the church, including a small home group—hosted by Jerry O’Connell and his wife—that offered Bible study and fellowship with a close-knit community.
Echoing their pastor, “they told me they would never give up on me,” says Twain. And in return, he didn’t want to let them down.
The Need for Accountability
At first Twain turned over to the pastor any money he earned with his handyman skills, since anything over $20 triggered his craving for drugs. So Pastor Ball would portion out small amounts of cash when Twain needed it, requesting a receipt for how it was spent. If Twain needed to go to the grocery store for a gallon of milk, he called the pastor when he left, called him at the store, and called him again when he got back home. Soon, other men in the church came alongside Twain as “accountability partners,” ready to shore up his strength and resolve during bouts of temptation.
One time, for example, Twain was doing some drywall repairs at a house, when he needed to pick up some more supplies. Jumping into his pickup truck, he noticed a small piece of drywall mud that, to him, looked just like a rock of crack cocaine. Instantly Twain was on the phone to an accountability partner confessing, “Everything inside of me is saying, ‘Go get high, go get high, go get high.’ ” And throughout his trip to the supply store and back, someone was on the phone, talking him through the challenge.
What helps to rein in the temptations, both Twain and Pastor Ball agree, is considering the potential consequences of giving in to them. “I usually say something like this to him,” says Pastor Ball. “O.K., you can go get high. That decision is within your power. But before you make that decision, let’s evaluate what might happen if you choose to do that. I’m not strong enough to come hold you down and keep you from doing it. That decision is yours, Twain, so what do you want to do? And every time he says, ‘I don’t want to do that. I just needed somebody to talk to.’ ”
Twain has been drug-free two years now. “And I am so proud of him!” says Jerry O’Connell with the enthusiasm of a surrogate father.
As God has broken cocaine’s grip on Twain, others areas have transformed as well. The man who once had a “very short fuse” now stops to think before he reacts. Once self-absorbed, “he’s now willing to do anything for anybody,” says Jerry. Twain was instrumental in getting a Celebrate Recovery program launched at Immanuel, to minister to others seeking freedom from addictions. And both Twain and Jerry took classes to become state-certified recovery support specialists.
Help with Parenting
Twain has also regained custody of his two youngest sons, now both teenagers, who had been living with their grandparents.
Taking on full-time parenting responsibilities triggered a new set of fears, but once again Twain turned to Pastor Ball for help. The pastor eased Twain into making important decisions. When one son came home with all Fs on his report card, “I asked Twain what he thought should be done,” says Pastor Ball. “He answered something to the effect, ‘Well, I want to beat his [butt], but I reckon that would be the wrong thing to do. So I guess I need to meet with his teachers.’ ” Twain set up the parent-teacher conference, which Pastor Ball attended with him.
Twain also took his “brutal honesty” into the meeting. “I told the teachers right up front I’m a recovering crackhead. This is my first year getting clean, and this is my pastor, and he’s helping me raise these boys,” Twain describes. That first year was a rough transition for both parent and child, but now his once-flunking son has a strong C average.
Investing in Twain’s life has also changed Pastor Ball and the church. “It’s helped us to grow in grace,” says the pastor, as they have persevered through “the ecstasies of victory and the agonies of defeat that come when you choose to not give up on somebody.”
And once again focusing on the similarities rather then the differences, he adds, “We’re all on a journey. And while none of us is finished yet, we all look at Philippians 1:6 and know that God is faithful to complete what He started. And that’s our hope.”