Transitional and Homeless Ministry at Stones River Church
When Julie Hadlock showed up at Stones River Church last year, we were in a season of prayer and discernment about our local participation in God’s mission. Julie is an expert in transitional ministry. Following her own release after eleven months in prison (a story that deserves its own telling), she dedicated herself to helping the formerly incarcerated transition into society. She came to SRC looking for a church home and a support system for her ministry. We became convinced that God was leading us to partner with Julie and, within a few months, decided to turn our largest storage building into a distribution center for clothing, hygiene kits, small appliances, sheets and blankets, and other essentials for rebuilding a life from scratch.
After clearing out the accumulation of decades, I dedicated much of my work in August to installing shelves, hanging wracks, lights, and ventilation. Then church members gathered to sort and organize donations.
Julie also began officing at the church. In the last few months, we—mostly Julie—have distributed hundreds of items. “The shed,” as we call it, has quickly become a key resource in Mufreesboro for those who come out of prison with nowhere else to turn for basic help, as well as other neighbors experiencing homelessness.
The overlap between these two groups is significant. Julie estimates that as much as 70% of the homeless population has recently been released from jail or prison. The street is an inevitable destination for many formerly incarcerated persons. While a variety of organizations also serve these populations, our help is uniquely free of charge. This is a vital issue for Julie, who knows personally how difficult it is to earn an income as a felon.
I’ve been learning a lot from Julie. She is well-known in Murfreesboro and surrounding counties as a “fixer” for transitional ministries and other organizations that serve those coming out of prison, including the prison system itself. Many people trying to make their way in the aftermath of incarceration hear, “You should call Ms. Julie.” She is a consummate networker and a tireless, sacrificial friend to these neighbors.
This became clear to me in September as I joined her at a local resource fair hosted by another church’s prison ministry. Around twenty organizations had booths at this event. I marveled as client after client made their way to our table, having been told by others that they couldn’t help with clothing, housing, or employment but that Julie might have an idea. There are frustrating limitations on what we can do, but Julie often knows who else to contact or how to navigate the system.
Another dimension of Julie’s work is a weekly class taught to women at the county “workhouse,” as we call it. The Rutherford County Correctional Work Center is a low-security facility to which well-behaved inmates transition before release. Julie’s class, Concepts for Living, teaches basic life skills and similar topics. As Julie puts it, it’s about teaching what she learned from her grandmother. For example, in October Julie’s brother Wesley, a professional chef, was a guest speaker who taught about cooking. I’ve joined the class when appropriate and begun forming friendships with some of the women who will soon transition back into society. Our prayer is that some of these friends will work with us as they seek to rebuild their lives on the outside.
Another area of ministry is our broader work with the homeless population. The shed has afforded contact with many neighbors who “live outside.” In November, we hosted a special event to teach about the use of cast iron (many homeless folks burn up regular cookware by cooking over open flame). Julie’s brother, Wesley, and I cooked chili, and Wesley added cornbread and cobbler. Another collaborator, Ms. Carolyn, who has fed homeless neighbors in Murfreesboro for nineteen years, spread the word and brought carloads of folks to the church facilities. We hosted around forty friends. It was a bitterly cold night, and the teaching portion of the evening was abortive, but we had a great time eating together.
We’ve begun referring to the ministry as The Yard because the church property features a large yard, fire pit, and picnic tables located between the church building and our auxiliary building, a house called Taylor Place where our offices and kitchen facilities are located. The resource shed is located at The Yard, and many of our activities and conversations take place there.
Recently, one of our church members, Pat Thweatt, began offering sewing classes for formerly incarcerated friends. Then we transferred these classes to the workhouse. Most recently, we held a class on creating Christmas rag wreaths (mine turned out quite lovely!). Church members, including the youth group, spent hours cutting holiday fabric into thousands of strips for this purpose because bringing scissors into the workhouse isn’t possible. The project was a huge hit. (We can’t take pictures inside the prison, so you’ll have to make due with Pat, me, and Julie.)
Finally, I want to share the story of Albert. In November, prison officials approached Julie about an inmate who did not speak English (remember, she’s the fixer!). The workhouse staff includes no one who speaks Spanish, and they were struggling to help Albert, a Venezuelan, understand the release process. Julie brought me in to translate, and we met Albert the week before his release. We began learning his story and let him know we would be waiting for him when he came out.
On the day of his release, Julie and I met Albert in the workhouse lobby. Julie had arranged a spot for him in a transitional house, so I took him there to meet his housemates and then carried him to the Rutherford County Probation Office, but his case file had not been transferred to their office. So we left my number with his case officer and waited to hear. Afterward, we visited a local food pantry to get some staples. Julie held my hand through this process. Afterward, because of a language barrier, I ran point. I asked myself What would Julie do? and did my best to help.
Albert had been in prison for a few months on a misdemeanor vandalism charge. His story is stunning, so I’ll share it in some detail. He walked from Venezuela four times (having been caught and deported from other countries three times) before entering the United States. Of course, he hitched rides when possible, but yes, he walked from South America. This is not an uncommon story. I encourage you to ask yourself what would compel a person to make that journey.
Just before crossing the border, he was robbed and lost the contact information for those he knew in Texas. Therefore, once he entered the US, he immediately turned himself in to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As a Venezuelan, he was given papers that put him on a path to political asylum. These papers leave him in legal limbo but ensure he will not be deported directly. ICE bought him a bus ticket to New York, where a large Venezuelan community resides. By the time he reached Nashville, he had decided to avoid the cold weather, so he got off the bus and made a plan to travel to Florida. He found work in Nashville for a couple of days, bought a bicycle, and set out for Atlanta, en route to Florida. If that sounds crazy, consider how biking from Tennessee to Florida compares to walking from Venezuela to Texas. He was biking down I24 near Murfreesboro when he came across an abandoned vehicle. He saw clothing inside and, being cold, decided to break a window to collect it. Police spotted him, and he was picked up and charged for the broken window.
When he came out of prison, only a few days remained before his ICE papers expired. So I took him to the immigration office in Nashville to confirm his status and take the next step. In March, he will be formally processed (fingerprints, etc.) and given a hearing date upon which a judge will decide his political asylum status.
In the meantime, we worked with the Spanish-speaking Seventh Day Adventist church that meets in the SRC building to find him a place to stay and a job. The transitional house costs $200 a week, and without income, this is not a long-term strategy (not to mention the language barrier; no one else in the house speaks Spanish). Unfortunately, job prospects for undocumented workers are scarce during the holiday season, and we were at a loss for what to do. So Albert decided to return to Nashville, where he had met other Venzuelans and found work. After two weeks in Mufreesboro, I dropped him off in Nashville to make his way. It was rainy, and I was loath to leave him on the street, but it was his decision. We gave him clothes, a blanket, and a hygiene kit, but it seemed like too little. Please pray for him and other “aliens and strangers” in our land. They depend on the Christlikeness of the church as they seek to make a life.