Developing Leaders Among Ex-Prisoners

At the 11:45 service, the first 3-4 rows are reserved for “Jake’s Men,” as other members of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church call them. Bethel AME, a prominent Gothic-style white stone building in Druid Heights, serves as a beacon for one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. Many of “Jake’s Men” have just been released from prison, live in halfway homes, and serve in a ministry for recovery addicts and former prisoners called Freedom Now.

Bethel AME, founded in 1787 as one of the first all black churches in the United States, once served as a platform for abolitionists and a station in the Underground Railroad. Now the church draws about 3,000 worshippers each Sunday across three worship services, many of them well-to-do professionals who drive in from the suburbs, but some of them, like Jake’s Men, drawn from Baltimore’s mean streets.

Freedom Now Ministry was founded by Jake Colbert. Now in his early sixties, Jake was raised in Baltimore in a churchgoing family, though admits he fell in with “the wrong crowd” as a young adult. Starting out as a small time drug dealer, Jake eventually one of the largest drug distributers in Baltimore. Over time he became addicted himself and for a period of five or six years was in and out of jail. During one jail term, Jake saw a TV broadcast of the then pastor, Rev. Dr. Frank Madison Reid, and was impressed by his message. Facing a parole judge, Jake asked for help with his addiction, and the judge sent him to a treatment program where he met a friend who brought him to Bethel AME Church.

For a long time Jake merely attended on Sundays, sitting in the balcony, but Pastor Reid developed an interest developing Jake as a leader.  According to Jake, “Pastor had a vision.” He told him, “One day you’re going to be a leader of this church.” Eventually Jake joined the Men’s Choir and became its leader, served on Trustee Board, and finally started his own ministry, Freedom Now, which focuses on outreach, and another program called Overcomers Ministry focuses specifically on recovery. Outreach means that occasionally “three or four brothers” go out into the community at night and try to minister to people who are buying and selling drugs.

Now “Jake’s Men” sit prominently every Sunday in the first three or four rows of the sanctuary, a testimony to the role Bethel AME Church plays in the neighborhood as a place of belonging for men who had lost their way.

Source: Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 204-206.

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