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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Called to Serve

It started as a “normal” Wednesday at the Central OAC. I use “normal” because most folks would not consider any of my days here in Atlanta normal. We are open from 9:00AM to 12:30PM Monday through Friday serving guests. At around 12:35 Chuck (the Executive Director) called me into his office and explained to me a situation that had come up. A guest has walked in off the streets to our center that had recently been released from prison. He was released on Tuesday from Augusta, GA with a bus ticket to Atlanta and a $25 debit card. For the confidentiality of our guest I will call him D while explaining my story. D had just finished a 17 year sentence and was told that he had 48 hours to report to his Probation Officer in Griffin, GA or he would violate his probation and be thrown back into prison. Let’s think about this for a second… 17 years in prison, no family contacts, bus ticket to Atlanta, ( an hour north of Griffin) and $25 ( when using an ATM the fee is $5, so now he is left with $20) and the task of reporting to his probation, sounds almost impossible to me.

Chuck asked me if I would take and drop off D in Griffin so he would be able to check into probation. I agreed that I would be willing to drive. Another volunteer at the OAC agreed to ride to Griffin with us. So we set out, to an unknown place, with unfamiliar people, and an undefined task ahead. On the hour trip to Griffin D expressed his gratitude towards me and the OAC for being able to help him. He was sure that he was not going to make it to his probation and feared that going back into the place he was just released from after 17 years was imminent. D explained that he had done wrong 17 years before, something that he will never be able to take back. He also explained how he had served his time and was a very different person today. Chuck gave me $20 to buy lunch for everyone in the car, and after along days work at the OAC I was ready for something to eat. As we passed a Burger King I asked D what he wanted to eat, he explained to me that he was too nervous to eat. “Funny you should ask that though, that Burger King that we just passed was the last place I had a meal before I went into prison.” 17 years ago, I was 7 years old, D was on his way to Griffin, GA to turn himself in, stopped to enjoy one more meal before life as he knew it would change drastically. My stomach was rumbling, but I respected D’s decision so we headed straight to the probation office.
We pull into an empty parking space at the probation office in Griffin. I explained to D that I would make sure that he got signed in before I would leave to head back to Atlanta. I had completed my assigned task of transporting D to his probation before 3:00PM, we got there before 2:00PM! D headed into the building as I opened the trunk to retrieve his belonging, as I carried his things up the stairs D was walking out of the building with a defeated look on his face. “The lady at the check-in window told me that I could not check into probation until I have a permanent address, she called my probation officer and he is giving me two hours to find one.”

This is where I had a decision, I could explain to D that I was sorry but I needed to get back to Atlanta with my bosses car, I was following the rules, I could blame it on someone else, I would feel bad but I had done all that I could. Or I could stay with D and try my best to walk with him, to be his advocate, when no one else in the world would. We are called as Christians, but also as human beings, to be many things in our lives, that Wednesday I was called to serve. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to be able to do, but I looked D in the eye with confidence and told him “We are going to get you through this.”

As I worked with D that day I learned firsthand how incredibly unjust our current prison system really is. The barriers that are placed on people recently released make it an almost impossible task to complete all requirements. It is a miracle that anyone is able to fulfill the requirements of parole and probation and keep from being thrown right back into prison. But that is for another day so let me get back into my story.

My first attempt was to talk to the lady at the probation check-in desk to see why she sent D away. The lady informed me that D needed a permanent address before he was able to check into probation. She handed D a post-it note with two places that she thought might be able to take him. One rooming house in Griffin and one in Thomaston, GA. Oh yea, she did not include the phone number to get in touch with either place.

The cell phone service in Griffin was not the best, I found one spot to make calls, in the middle of the parking lot, no shade, temperature was 98 degrees but felt like 120 in the middle of that probation office parking lot. I got in contact with Kimberly, my boss and Director of the OAC, to let her know what was going on. I explained the situation that had come up about D needing a permanent address. She informed me that she and Rene, the Director of Advocacy and Public Policy, would call around Atlanta to see if any shelters would be able to take D in. Two hours, permanent address, foreign city, still very hungry!

I decided to call his probation officer to see if I could get any additional information. His secretary answered, “The Officer is off in the field, he will not be back today.” I asked if maybe she would be able to answer some questions I had. I spouted off about 10 questions ranging from “Does D need a permanent address today, or can he use a temporary?” to “I am looking for a shelter in Griffin, would you be familiar with any?” I am not sure if it was out of caring for the man I was working with or if she was just annoyed with all my questions but she transferred me to the Officer’s cell phone. When the Officer picked up, I explained who I was and the organization I was working for. I explained to him that I was working with D, and what I was trying to accomplish that day. The Officer was a very nice man, was more than happy to work with us. He explained that he was having a very busy day between two different cities, and he would do his best to get to Griffin by 4:30PM when the office closed. He told me that if we were able to find D a permanent address in Atlanta that he would be willing to transfer his probation to Fulton County.

I called Kimberly and Rene with the new information from the Officer but realized that I still had a lot of unanswered questions. So I went back into the probation office and realized that there was a new front desk lady. She was slightly more helpful, as I asked question after question. She eventually called his probation officer talked for awhile; when she hung up the phone she said that someone from the back would start working with D to complete some of his paper work. I continued to ask questions like, “Can D use a shelter as his address?” At this point she was done with me and told me to sit down and if I had any more questions I could ask the Officer. So then I asked another question, and she was serious about no more questions, with a raised voice she asked if I would sit down!

Throughout the day I had been in contact with Kimberly and Rene, I knew the addresses that we were going to try and use when they called D back. I had been in contact with his Probation Officer, so he knew where we were coming from. D really did not know anything at this point. So when the new Officer called D back and would not allow me to accompany him I felt very defeated. At this point it was around 3:45PM, I had been working nonstop on the phone and in person trying to figure out what I could do for D. After all that now D is in the back without any vital information that is going to help him from violating probation.

At around 4:00PM I called Kimberly and explained what had happened. I let her know that I was going to ask one more time if they would allow me to give D information but if not we were going to head back to Atlanta. So when I walked back into the office the first front desk lady that we had worked with was back. I explained that I had been in contact with my organization in Atlanta all day and that I was the only one who knew that information that D needed. The response is what really got me, “There is nothing that you can do, your job does not allow you to do much, and there is nothing that you can do! This is all Mr. D’s fault, he knew a month ago when we sent him an e-mail in prison everything that he was going to need to satisfy his probation requirements. The office closes in 30 minutes and Mr. D will not have completed his paperwork by then and you are going to have to leave. You have to realize that there is not much else you can do.”

This is where I had another decision to make. I could tell this lady how I really felt about her and most likely get kicked out of the probation office and leave D stranded alone in Griffin. Or I could practice a non-violent protest, what at Mercy we call starting the Revolution of Love. What that would look like is to sit there in the lobby and show that I was not going to give up on this man when “there is nothing else that I could do.” That’s exactly what I did!

My only hope now was that D’s Probation Officer who I had been in contact with would get there before I was kicked out at 4:30PM. The clock on the wall read 4:25PM and D was still filling out paperwork in the back, the Officer nowhere to be seen. As I waited in the lobby I met a young lady who I had a conversation with. She was very moved not only by what we were doing for D but for the way I handled the situation at the front desk. She informed me that “You can be sure that she would not talk to me like that and get away with it!” But then she said that all we can do is pray, which was absolutely right.

As the computers at the front desk were being shut down and the blinds were being closed on the windows it seemed like all hope was lost. But then through the back door walked D’s Officer at 4:28PM! He greeted me with a hand shake and led me into the back. There he completed the needed paper work with me and D. The only catch was that he needed D to return the next day to his office in Thomaston, GA to complete additional paper work and testing. But D had completed everything that he needed for probation that day; he was still a free man! On the way out the Officer said something that made everything we went through that day worth it. “D you should feel very lucky that you have these people here with you, not many people are lucky enough to have people care about them like these folks have cared for you.” I had only known this man for a couple of hours, but the Officer could see the way we cared for him was real. We all need an advocate, I am honored that I was able to stand by D that day!

On the way home, now close to 6:00PM, we stopped at a Wendy’s for dinner. At this point not having eaten all day I was getting slightly delirious. Here is the beautiful thing: We are all called to gather around the table, there is room for everyone. At the end of one of the craziest days of my life, we gathered around a table! Around the table was me, a recent college grad, left corporate business to spend a year serving other. Next to me was the other OAC volunteer a man here in the United States from Congo seeking Asylum. His story is one full of pain, suffering, rejection, but in the end full of God’s love. Then we have D, a man recently released from prison after 17 years, spent the day thinking he was on his way back. That day the three of us broke bread together, we came together from the north, south, east, and west to sit around that table. The bread was in the form of three Wendy burgers, extra greasy fries, and enough soda to fill a bathtub. We did not say much during the meal but D reminded us something very powerful, “This is the first meal that I have had outside of prison and it tastes great!” It had been 17 years since he was able to sit around a table outside of the prison walls and enjoy the gift of food. What a special moment it was to be enjoying that meal with him! I guess the moral of the story is you never know when you will be asked to Serve!

This has been a very special year for me. I have grown in many ways that I did not think were possible. I owe it all to the people I work with everyday! This is a very special story, but each and every day I hear all types of stories. So I want to thank all the people that have encountered this year!


  1. Thomas - that was such a moving story. What a difference you made in D's life. He will never forget the love he felt that day.You are an amazing you man. Love you. Mom

  2. This is an amazing and inspirational story. I am glad to know there are still compassionate people like you and those who are willing to take a risk because they believe in the GOOD that are in others. Thanks for sharing this! Love Robyn S.

  3. Hi Thomas,
    As you may know, your story about D was in Brant's sermon this morning, as told by Caroline Kelly, associate at Central Pres. Atlanta.
    I've also read your account. After all you've done for him, can you tell me what is D's status now, and his chances for meeting all the bureaucratic requirements? Thanks for looking after one of the least of these, our brother.
    Dave Custis

  4. The last month has been a big whirl of travelling, visiting, and caregiving. So, a month after your post, why should I feel the immediacy of it? I wanted to contain my tears - but The System (medical, political, "correctional", educational, etc.) drives me crazy. Thank God for your personalist method and faith. For it is only in seeing each other as human that we can achieve change. Only light drives out darkness. If you had seen the person at the desk as a cog in a machine, and allowed her to convince you to leave, then you would have been echoing her impersonal and death-dealing response to D and you. But you, you are a child of the living God, not a god of wood, or metal, or prestige, or proper grace, or money, or insufficient time or no joy, or hate, or crossing to the other side of the road when someone is in the ditch. You share the abundance of God. And as D was blessed by you, so I am blessed to know you and to know this story. Take care of yourself. Stan Williams

  5. We just used this story from your blog for our church school class. We were studying the James 1:22-25 passage. This is a good example of how a person can be a "doer of the word and not just a hearer of the word". Keep up the good and faithful work! Thank you for sharing your work with us.
    -Grier, Chris and Abigail