(T-G Photo by Tracy Simmons) [Order this photo]
Jabez, a mongrel of no recognizable breed, races by -- clearly joyful. There's a nip in the air, and he has 368 acres in which to run. Like the men clearing trees, he's been rescued from the local shelter and given a new chance at life.
(T-G Photo by Tracy Simmons)
"Clay Parker was sheriff and he was very good to us about letting us come to the jail to preach," recalls Jay Pope of the spark of the ministry. "I had 23 men get saved one Sunday morning, and he let us carry them out and baptize them."
According to Pope, nearly a year later, 80 to 85 percent of those same men were back in jail. He had attended high school with some of the men, and he asked, "Man, what gives?"
With the answer, the cycle became clear. After being released from jail, the men frequently have no transportation, no driver's license. They are on probation, often with court costs to repay. The mothers of their children expect child support payments. Employers are reluctant to hire an ex-convict.
Before long, the men are back in jail, either for violating probation by failing to pay fees or for driving when they shouldn't to a job interview.
Dr. Donald Barnes, then-president of the Jail Ministry team, Bill Hornaday and Pope worked with Bobby Taylor, Mark Ashley, Roger Waggoner, Ray Bobier and Owen Raulerson and constructed a charter and set of bylaws for the Shelbyville Bedford County Halfway Home in 2005.
There were three years of building a program, and lot of prayers, before the first parolees were accepted into the program, then housed on Carter Street.
(T-G Photo by Tracy Simmons)
Earlier this year, a friend brought an epiphany regarding the mission's name.
"A guy that I've known for awhile came up to me one day, he said, 'Pastor Jay, I see you're just halfway there.'"
"I thought about that a long time, and I went back to the board. We're not halfway there, we're a fresh start," said Pope.
The board agreed and all the paperwork associated with a name change was completed in August.
The non-profit is now called the Fresh Start Center, and with a new year upcoming, the name is particularly fitting to the transitions the ministry has seen in the last months. In September, the group moved to a new location, a working farm on Hornaday Lane.
With eight men currently in the program, two more expected at the first of the year, Pope sees a great 2012 ahead.
"It is a beautiful, peaceful place," said Pope. "They can sit on the porch in the morning with a cup of coffee and read their Bible. We've given them a nice home -- some of my guys have never had a nice home. This house is spotless, the landscaping is spotless, these guys work."
Physical labor, being actively outdoors and in the expanse of the farm leads to spiritual growth in the men.
"They get to look out the window, to see this farm, have the solitude, and just know God is real."
When it began Fresh Start was a six-month program, but this year has been expanded to 18-months.
(T-G Photo by Tracy Simmons)
Pope meets potential candidates for the program while they are still incarcerated.
"I like to get to know my men," he said. "If they are just wanting a roof over their head, it's not going to work. We ask a lot, we give a lot."
Fresh Start is not a rehabilitation facility, not in the sense the term "rehab center" is often used. It's transitional, taking men from a cycle of jail and release, sometimes breaking generational curses, and giving them the spiritual, emotional and practical tools they need to re-enter the community.
It's not prison, either. The men are free to leave at any time. There are chores to be done, cooking and cleaning. And for the most part, there is harmony.
"For a bunch of guys living in a house together, they do great," he said.
Applicants fill out a lengthy application, sign a contract and agree to an 18-page set of rules and regulations -- expectations for their conduct. A background check is conducted at the outset. The crimes for which they had been convicted of in the past are non-violent -- typically DUIs, failure to pay child support, driving on a suspended license. The program does not accept men convicted of felonies or any type of sexual offense.
They make minimum wage while working on the farm, and pay weekly rent to Fresh Start. What's left goes to pay off their probation, to meet their other obligations and, hopefully, to begin saving money for when they leave the 18-month program.
Each morning at the farm begins with a Bible study at 6:30 a.m. Then it's off to work. For their first 60 days in the program the men work on the farm. After that, up to their six-month anniversary with Fresh Start, they take jobs off the farm -- all in preparation to work in a trade after their 18 months in the program is complete.
Each evening the men are involved in group sessions, study and prayer. On Fridays they take part in financial instruction. Wednesday nights and Sundays they attend a local church service.
According to Pope, the program not only benefits the men but the community as well.
"It costs $22,500 for a man to do 11-29 (a 11-month, 29-day jail term) in Bedford County. Sometimes they make five or six trips."
None of the 30 men who have completed the program since 2008 have returned to incarceration.
Right now, the men are clearing the farm getting ready for the spring.
The men will sow a 10-acre plot with vegetables to be given to local food charities -- and will set up a vegetable stand for sales to the public.
Local businesses have been hiring the men as day laborers, and Fresh Start will formalize the process by bidding out jobs, acting as an agent and employer during the development of a trade.
"We've got guys who all their lives have worked for cash. When they are 62 there's nothing for them," says Pope of the non-existent savings, of not having paid into Social Security -- not to mention the payment of taxes to the government.
"We're here for these men who are going to become awesome citizens who are going to give back and stop taking,"
Pope admits his own past struggles with addictions, noting, "Addicts are the most selfish people on the earth." Part of the healing for the men is the process of learning to give back to the community, instead of always taking.
Pope envisions building herds of goats and sheep, raising hogs and chickens. They'll also break in colts for the public -- an area of Pope's expertise.
Of the work the men need to sustain them during their time at the center, Pope is asking the community to call on Fresh Start.
"We'll do anything, we'll paint, we don't care ... My guys are so talented, they can do anything," says Pope, ticking off the men's skills: mechanic, electrician, builder. Some have experience in sheet metal work. They've considered providing lawn care services, or pressure washing.
"We need the revenue to come in. If you need day laborers, call me," he said.
With its own fresh start, the ministry has renewed dreams for the future. Pope hopes to build a machine shop and a woodworking shop is being built on the property. He believes this farm is just the first, and hopes to build upon the example on Hornaday Lane by establishing other working farms in the county.
As with other local ministries, Fresh Start needs continued -- and new -- financial support from the community.
"So many times people are tired of giving to something that's not fruitful," says Pope, who hopes help from the community can arrive in a way that returns a tangible -- a day's work, a hog, a goat, a basket of tomatoes.
"They want to see where their money is going," he said.
Pope invites the public -- and especially local pastors -- to come visit the farm and see what Fresh Start is accomplishing. Most of all, the ministry asks for the community's support in prayer, but, "If you need day laborers, call me," he says.
While Pope is talking, Jabez continues his full-on sprint around the front yard.
"The name Jabez means 'born in sorrow,'" says Pope of an Old Testament passage in 1 Chronicles. The biblical Jabez prayed for blessings, that God's hand would be with him, and keep him from harm and pain. The next verse says simply, "And God granted his request."
"Look how happy he is," says Pope of the pup which was rescued and given a fresh start.