Home for good
A faith-based program in Charlotte, N.C., uses trained mentors to help keep African Americans out of prison.
March 27, 2012 | Editor's note: Madeline McClenney-Sadler, founder of Exodus Foundation.org, will co-teach with Sarah Jobe a seminar called “Reconciliation in the Context of Prisons” at the 2012 Summer Institute at Duke Divinity School.
Bondel Cook has spent more than half of his 49 years incarcerated, serving time in five states on a variety of drug- and robbery-related charges. His last stint was at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., where he served 16 years for assault with a deadly weapon. Since his release on parole in 2008, he has marked his longest stretch as a free man since age 16.
For the first time in his adult life, he truly believes he has seen the inside of a jail cell for the last time. He credits Exodus Foundation.org, a faith-based organization dedicated to stopping the flow of African Americans into prison, for making the difference.
“I needed help and support, and Exodus gave me assurance that they were more than a job-readiness program and wanted to help a brother out with the issues of life,” Cook said. “All my life, I’ve been somebody’s number or statistic. The approach of Exodus is not to judge me but to make me accountable.”
Exodus Foundation.org is the brainchild of the Rev. Dr. Madeline McClenney-Sadler, an ordained Baptist minister. She views the mass incarceration of African-Americans as a crisis; according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total prison and jail population in 2009, while making up just 12 percent of the U.S. population in the 2010 census. She has made changing those numbers her life’s work.
During her childhood in Richmond, Va., McClenney-Sadler’s parents impressed upon her and her siblings their responsibility for making a difference in their community. While earning a degree in finance and then a master of divinity at Howard University, she volunteered at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, the homeless shelter run by nationally known homeless activist Mitch Snyder. This experience was formative.
Questions to consider:
- Exodus Foundation drew from existing models in another field. Can cross-disciplinary exchanges strengthen your work?
- What capacities does your organization have that might translate into resources for vulnerable people in your community?
- Can mentoring be a means to practice holy friendship? What makes mentoring as a Christian ministry different from other models?
- Having an impact on social issues requires patience. How does Exodus Foundation model patience and endurance for the long haul?
“Half the people in the shelter were coming home from prison,” she said. “They had burned bridges, and this was the only place where they could find shelter.”
The desire to minister to ex-convicts in a meaningful way stayed with her when she moved to Durham, N.C., to pursue her Ph.D. at Duke University. She became involved in the prison ministry at a women’s correctional facility through her church and worked as a sentencing specialist with Reentry Inc. in Raleigh to learn the intricacies of the criminal justice system.
Her involvement with prison ministries made her aware of their shortcomings.
“The predominant model of going in to pray and sing hymns is not enough,” she said. “It reflects our own standoffishness and fear [of this population] that causes us to limit our ministry to the safety of the prison. True ministry requires a greater level of comfort with the risk involved. For many, there is a need to be reconciled with family members and their communities. We help people find their way back into the community.”
Without help, returning citizens, as McClenney-Sadler calls them, will more likely than not end up behind bars again.
“We know that 70 percent will return to prison within five years without community support, and roughly 50 percent will return within three years,” she said. She points to a study from the Department of Labor that found that having a mentor after release is a better predictor of whether a person will return to prison than anything else, including housing or employment.
Exodus’ Red Sea Crossings mentoring program seeks to provide this support. It’s this program, McClenney-Sadler said, that sets Exodus apart from other social service programs designed to help the formerly incarcerated.
“Our focus is on being a new set of friends for those coming out of prison,” she said.