And after the most pleasant presentation came the most emotional: Catherine Rohr.
Rohr is the founder of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. She uses business as a tool to love inmates and help them succeed in life – and stay out of jail – once they leave. As part of her program she takes in the top gang leaders and drug dealers – the people who are already naturally leaders and entrepreneurs. In the program all the inmates spend four months in a business plan competition (and doing the chicken dance). When the are released from prison, Rohr picks them up at the gate and will already have housing arranged for them and planned interviews with companies.
In three years, the PEP has had 256 graduates. There have been no active participants who have gone back to prison; and only 2.8% of the people in this program have been kicked out. Rohr believes this huge success rate is because of one simple thing: she and the PEP staff love them.
When prisoners in Texas are released they are given one outfit of clothes, $100, and a bus ticket to the city they committed their crime in. Rohr tells the story of one graduate who, when she picked him up, immediately handed her $10 (of the only $100 he had to his name). He wanted to tithe. He currently makes $9/hr and tithes 10% to his church and then gives another 5% to the PEP.
Rohr reminds us that prisoners – even murderers – can be role models. She questioned why the church won’t have faith in former convicts, but will allow grace for the “old-school” murderers in Moses, Paul and David.
This was, without question, the most emotional time of the day. The guilt that comes from being cleansed from the stereotypes we have of people so foreign to us like prisoners. They’re criminals… they must be evil, right? Is it safe to have a former convict as a church attendee if we have a preschool program? Can they ever really change? Why should we bother even trying to help?
And in telling her story, Rohr lavishes love on these people we have sought to de-humanize. My first reaction is to simply think – “well, I don’t interact with that culture. My life doesn’t intersect with them… that’s why I’ve never thought about it that way. I don’t know any ex-cons.”
Aaron, Aaron, that is the point! I don’t interact with that culture; I never have… and there’s too large of a chance that I never will. Why do I refuse to lavish love on them? If I don’t, if my peers don’t, if this body of Christ doesn’t intercede and pour love on them… what kind of life are they going to have off of $100 and a one-way bus ticket? If we who claim that “love wins” don’t bother to love them… who will?