Freedom in Cell Block 5B A chance to gro

Ifyou ask Chaplain Al Novak, Director of Forgotten Man Ministries at the Genesee County Jail, he’ll say that the GRO (God Restoring Offenders) Pod is the result of unrelenting prayer. “We prayed for the GRO Pod for six years before it became a reality,” Novak told MCM. “The Kent County Jail had been doing it with lots of success, and we wanted to initiate it here. The only problem was, there were no funds available.” Then in 2012, a Forgotten Man Ministries volunteer came to Chaplain Novak and donated $40,000 dollars, enough to cover start-up costs – digital equipment and class materials – and fund the program for two years. This year, those funds have been exhausted and a program responsible for radical changes in the lives of inmates is facing the axe.

The GRO Pod is an intense spiritual and life skills class designed to immerse inmates in biblical knowledge and teach them life skills to stop the cycle of recidivism. It is one of the many programs sustained by Forgotten Man Ministries. FMM is a missionary team dedicated to witnessing to inmates in order to change the trajectory of their lives. Everything they do, from Friday night worship services and special ministries such as Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, to correspondence courses, individual counseling and even the book cart of reading material, is designed to lead people closer to God. But their efforts don’t end there. “When we see the Lord’s instruction to make disciples of all nations,” Novak explained, “we know it doesn’t just mean leading people to Christ. We need to help them grow up and mature in the Spirit. Everything we do works to that end. The GRO Pod is one of our most effective efforts simply because of the amount of time we have to disciple those students.” Chaplain Al is referring to the extensive length of the class: 200 hours of instruction in ten weeks. “Two things tend to happen when a person goes to prison,” the chaplain said. “Either they become further involved in crime, or they change and never return. We are trying to delete people from the system: to change them so they never return.” This is not just rhetoric. Statistics from the GRO Pod program in the Kent County Jail indicate that recidivism rates dropped from 76% to 25%.

“I believe in Forgotten Man Ministries. The testimonies that result from these programs are incredible.”
Sheriff Pickell

A curriculum with four components – Basic Life Principles 1 and 2, Anger Resolution, and Financial Freedom – is taught through short videos followed by discussion and question and answer time. Instructor Leo Wynne says it is a source of joy in him to see the change in his students throughout the class. With a mesmerizing voice and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, Leo is a dynamic and engaging teacher whose soul is so enraptured with God that it seems his body is the only thing keeping his spirit here on earth. To Leo, the jail is just another place where he can tell the good news of Jesus Christ. “It ain’t about you and it ain’t about me,” Leo said with a smile, “it’s all about who Jesus is through his word. That’s the whole idea of the GRO Pod: to give the guys an understanding of who they are and what they can be when they put their trust in Jesus.” It’s no surprise that Leo’s eloquence and insight is in high demand in the community. “I was volunteering at a couple of different places and it got to be too much,” he said. “I had to let something go, but I couldn’t stop volunteering here. It’s my purpose. I love teaching.”

“Jail ministry is the hardest to raise funds for. People don’t have much compassion for inmates. But I know this: Jesus changed me, and if he changed me, he can change anyone.”
Chaplain Al Novak

Thanks to Leo’s teaching genius, the queue to join GRO Pod has exploded. “Leo is a great teacher,” Chaplain Novak said. “Since he’s taken over, the waiting list has grown from five to 60.” Until now, space constraints limited class size to 15 students; however, a recent room change has given FMM the opportunity to double student capacity. “The class used to meet in the 5B housing unit,” Novak explained, “and all the students of the class were housed in that unit. With this expansion however, students will now also be coming from [Cell Block] 5A.” While the expansion is exhilarating, the clock is ticking on the program’s lifespan. “Without additional funding, I will have to cut this program in July 2015,” Chaplain Novak said sadly.

Somehow, out of a program that has never met its fundraising budget in the history of its 40 years, even though that budget is a drop in the bucket of many of the charitable programs in this town – a mere $145,000 – Forgotten Man Ministries has served a demographic that many of us scorn, or despise or simply forget. This program cannot disappear. We need the people of Genesee County to step up and help restore our brothers and sisters who need a second chance. Meanwhile, the members at FMM continue to do what they did for six years before the GRO Pod began: pray. ♦

Photography by Mike Naddeo


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