United States

After serving three years in prison for burglary, Shane Echols had paid his debt to society and hoped to start a new life. But he was worried.

He had been in a similar position once before. When he was released, the prison gave him a hundred dollars and a bus ticket, but he didn’t know where to go. Even worse, because of his felony record, he wasn’t able to get a job. Shane ended up going back to what he knew: a life of crime, which landed him back in prison.

This time, however, the 44-year-old’s fears were laid to rest when he contacted Jeffrey Cobb, founder of Shelter From the Storm, a transitional living home, or halfway house, for ex-offenders in Gainesville, Florida. Jeffrey not only provided Shane with a place to stay but also gave him a job with his lawn service.

“I thank God for Mr. Cobb,” said Shane, who met Jeffrey when the older ex-offender visited his prison and testified about changing his life. “I’ve been out of prison just two days, and I’m already working. I’m not going back.”

With prisons lacking adequate rehabilitation initiatives, transitional programs like Jeffrey’s, operated or supported by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, are helping to fill the gap.

Jeffrey Cobb, right, founder and director of Shelter From the Storm transitional ministry, with Derrick Williams, Edwin Sanchez, and Shane Echols at one of their job sites.
Leo Tate, second from left, the founder of the Lia Transitional House, Inc., leads a Friday evening Bible study. Guests include Jeffrey Cobb, left, director of Shelter From the Storm; Margaret Tate, co-founder of the Lia Transitional House, Inc.; and clients Roderick Seay and William Garrett.
Aphesis House founder James Settles.

Political consultant David Keene alluded to the difficulty ex-offenders have reacclimating in an interview for the Academy Award-nominated documentary 13th, which explores mass incarceration in the United States (US) prison system.

“While they’re [ex-offenders] in prison, [the prison system is] doing very little, if anything, to rehabilitate them so that they can re-enter civil society when they get out. And then when they get out, we shun them.”

One study by the US Department of Justice tracked more than 400,000 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005. The study found that, within nine years, 83 percent were rearrested.

Jeffrey, 55, started Shelter From the Storm in 2001 after experiencing firsthand the difficulty of finding a place to stay and employment after being released. During his 20 years of criminal activity, he was incarcerated 10 times. His life changed, however, when he took Bible studies from an Adventist who came to visit him.

Jeffrey said he felt the Holy Spirit move in his life, and he decided that he “didn’t want to go back to that lifestyle.” He also determined that, when he got out, he was going to start his own business and a program to help other released offenders.

He did both. His transitional home provides shelter for four men, and his lawn service provides them with employment. Jeffrey plans to add more housing for men and add a home for women.

In 2007, Leo Tate, who has been in prison ministry for more than 40 years, founded Lia Transitional House, Inc., in Memphis, Tennessee. The four-bedroom transitional home gives ex-offenders a place to stay; helps them find employment; and assists with drug recovery, literacy, and money management.

“The Lord has given me a vision,” said Leo, who believes there would be more programs to help ex-offenders if all churches heeded the words in Matthew 25:36 about remembering those in prison. Leo hopes to purchase and renovate a local school so he can help even more people. He’s also planning a first-of-its-kind prison ministry convention in Memphis.

Earl Gator, a 46-year-old man who spent 11 years in jail, credits family support and a man who attends his Seventh-day Adventist church in Nashville, Tennessee, with helping him stay out of prison. “The gentleman took me under his wing and taught me how to paint,” Earl said. As a result, Earl became a painting contractor who works with the founder of a Nashville-based transitional living program called Aphesis House, teaching ex-offenders a painting trade.

Like Jeffrey Cobb, Aphesis House’s founder James Settles turned his life around in prison and vowed to start a transitional living program when he was released. James was released in 1994 and started Aphesis House in 2003 when a family heard about his effort and donated a home, allowing him to open his first halfway house.

Aphesis House now operates four facilities that serve 28 men, but the local needs continue to grow—there’s a waiting list of about 200 men. James plans to build another facility to accommodate as many people as possible.

Currently, Aphesis House is a leader in transitional housing services in middle Tennessee and has published materials on how to start effective recovery programs.

“God is using Aphesis House to provide the kind of facility where men can get the life skills they need to live a better life,” James said.

One of those men is Tim Holt, who has been living a successful life since leaving Aphesis House 12 years ago. Tim said its relapse prevention program and behavior modification classes were particularly helpful in changing his lifestyle.

“Aphesis House helped me to grow into the man I am today,” said Tim, who is now married and owns a house. “I’m blessed.”

mttc.png (77 KB)The Mission to the Cities initiative outlines a wholistic, comprehensive, ongoing urban discipleship process that meets people’s needs and then offers opportunities to develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This initiative is part of the General Conference’s “Reach the World” strategic plan. To learn more about this initiative and see how you can be a part, please visit MissionToTheCities.org.

Lucas L. Johnson II is a former reporter for The Associated Press. He is also the author of the book Finding the Good, which was featured on National Public Radio. Reprinted and adapted with permission from the Southern Tidings