By: Katie Sobiech
Crime is definitely an issue in our community, as it is in many others, but what would happen if instead of casting the guilty aside, we reached out to them?
Broken Chains Ministry, who has been doing this since 2004, is definitely on to something…
Executive Director and Chaplain at the Summit County Jail, Dennis Shawhan, knows what it’s like to be on the other side – once given 41 years in prison due to a thousand dollar a day drug addiction and being found guilty of financial extortion – he understands. It was his trip to jail that was a blessing in disguise, where he found a Gideon’s International Bible and began reading it.
“It was the first time I had ever picked up a Bible in my entire life,” Shawhan said, “I knew about God, I actually believed in Him, but I had no idea that He loved me. I didn’t know the way of Christ. I knew nothing.”
With a large sentence in front of him, he says “The Lord worked something out. It was such a miracle that I never saw one day in prison. Instead I believe that He called me. It was as if He said to me ‘Oh you’re going to jail alright, but wait until you see what I’ve got in store for you!”
He celebrated the anniversary of his ordination (12 years!) this past June and has been serving at the Summit County Jail as a missionary ever since.
He is a man passionate about rescuing others from the destruction he once found himself in and directing them towards Christ and freedom from the chains that have kept them bound.
The ministry’s founding verse is Psalm 68:6 which says “God places the lonely in families; he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy. But he makes the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.”
“We want to help deliver men and women from the captivity of their sins. It says that God sets the solitary in families and breaks out those who are bound in chains, “Shawhan said, continuing, “It’s really neat that everywhere from the Old Testament to the New, there was an incarcerated person and always a visitation from God – He did something supernatural – whether it was Joseph, Jeremiah, David, Paul or Silas – God always freed someone who was captive and took care of their needs.”
Some of their 2008 highlights include distributing over 2,000 Bibles free of charge to inmates at the Summit County Jail, Bible Studies, Chapel services, one-on-one visitation, distributing over 1,288 pairs of free eye glasses, having over 4,000 inmates attend Chapel services, changing lives daily with the gospel, and decreasing the recidivism rate in Summit County.
Leading Men and Women to Christ
Two weeks ago one man in the Summit County Jail took out the lense of his glasses, carved up his arm and completely covered his cell in blood.
“He is a sex offender and society doesn’t have a whole lot of use for him,” Shawhan said, “He was in such despair and hopelessness that he tried to kill himself. There’s been a rash of that going around here lately – men trying to hang themselves or cut themselves up.”
The sex offender went through a mental health evaluation and then Shawhan was called in to see him by request of one of the Deputys. Shawhan shared his testimony and the gospel with the man, they prayed and he received Jesus. He is now going to start a Bible study and six week discipleship series.
“This is just what Jesus does here,” Shawhan said, “We deal one on one with people whose lives are just a total wreck. They’ve made a mess out of things but the Lord delights in writing the last chapter. He may go to prison for the next 10 years but now he doesn’t have to live in hopelessness.”
Two other women, street addicts, worked the streets all of their lives. After working with Broken Chains and Legacy III, are now employed, have their own apartments, are paying bills on time and aren’t using any kind of drugs or alcohol. One is even enrolled at Akron University and working on her degree.
Inside of Prison
While inside of the prison, Shawhan and John Wiseman, Project Director of BC, lead the men to Christ and help them get things in order for when and if they are released. Volunteers lead Discipleship Studies, a six week series that connects the offender with someone in a church who they will often stay in touch with when released.
Shawhan wrote and authored the Discipleship Series manual.
“The series covers all of the major things that an inmate goes through and what they’re going to need to know when they first come to Christ. We also include topics on accountability, church attendance, mentoring, finances, addiction and areas like that,” Wiseman said.
They have a special fund in their budget called “Inmate Assistance”. The money is used to help those that come out of prison.
“A lot of people come out and they don’t have a state ID, they don’t have money for groceries or a place to live. When the Lord lays it on our heart to give to a specific person that is being obedient, we’re going to try to help them,” Wiseman said, continuing, “The Bible tells us that it’s the goodness of God that leads us to repentance, so we want to show them the kindness of God.”
However, he says “We don’t let them take advantage of us, we weren’t born yesterday, but we do want to show them kindness.”
They help the men get their drivers licenses, take them to parole, get them work clothes and also provide eye glasses for them so that they can read their Bibles.
“It’s kind of hard to turn those kinds of requests down,” Wiseman said.
Outside of Prison
The relationships that Broken Chains forms with men and women in the prisons do not end there. When the ex-offenders get out, the ministry is right by their side, doing whatever it takes to support them.
“When they come home our goal is to be there for them,” Wiseman said.
“We take them out to get all the things necessary for their first 90 days out,” Shawhan added, “if they don’t have those things they are going to go out and re-offend.”
Shawhan says that the recidivism rate is about 85% within the first 3 years here in Summit County. However, Barna Research shows that if a person goes through a structured discipleship program and follows Jesus Christ, that recidivism rate drops drastically to 16%.
“We really believe that if a person is in Christ they are a new creation,” Shawhan said.
The problem is that men and women become believers while in prison, but without anyone to mentor them, they easily fall into the same old cycle and patterns of behavior when they get out.
“There is a high illiteracy rate, its like 4th and 5th grade for some of these men and women. So they go to prison and come out just as illiterate as when they came in. They’re unemployable and the law of nature sets in. If they don’t have anything to fall back on they go out and re offend because they have to provide for themselves. If they can’t get hired they’ll start stealing and before you know it they’re back on drugs.”
They can make $2,000.00 a week selling drugs, compared to 6 or 7 dollars an hour at a fast food place. They say “You do the math.”
“They consider going to prison for 13 months just the cost of doing business,” Shawhan said.
“We help men and women with re-entry issues,” Shawhan said, “We get them work boots, help them find jobs, even go with them to help get their state ID’s so that they can get a job.”
Wiseman and Shawhan both attend Maranatha Church and it isn’t uncommon for one of the ushers to come looking for Wiseman, saying an ex-offender has come to the service and would like to see him.
“We have a large church and because of that, a lot of resources. If you can get a man to church, no matter the size, typically somehow, somewhere, somebody – God will use to make a way. We network together and get things done. We do our very best to help them find employment and housing, but it starts with getting them in church,” Wiseman explained.
“Jesus doesn’t hold me responsible for their choices, He holds me responsible for the ministry that He has given to me and the things that He gives me to do. So I faithfully try to carry out the responsibilities of what I’m supposed to do and the results are up to God and really up to the individual that I sow my time into,” Wiseman said.
The Importance of Supervision After Release
“AA helps a lot, but if they don’t have a good support group at their local church there’s not much of a chance,” Wiseman said.
This has led to their vision for a re-entry campus.
“We are trying to develop a place – there is such a great need in our community,” Shawhan said.
Wiseman and Shawhan had 3 post release homes on the south side of Akron at one time.
“As much time as we spent there, without proper supervision the women were turning tricks and smoking crack in the ministry homes. They peddled dope to pay their rent. The guys that were there in the name of Jesus, trying to do Bible studies and come to church were shooting heroine in the ministry homes. Most of the men failed because of lack of supervision,” Shawhan said in disappointment.
Because of this, BC wants to keep a close connection with the men once they are released.
“I give my cell phone number to inmates all of the time. I’ve been giving the same number out for 15 years and I’m still alive. I invite them to my house. I started doing jail ministry in 1982 and have had people live with my family. We cleared out a spot in our basement and had guys come and live with us,” Wiseman said.
The Affects of Alcohol and Drugs
The Summit County Jail is a maximum security facility, holding men and women convicted of the worst of crimes including murder, rape and child molestation. One of the biggest problems is that 85-90% of all offenses committed are committed under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
“If you ask a man whose sitting in jail for domestic violence if he committed his crime while he was drunk, 90% of the time they will say ‘Oh yea, I was drunk, I would never hit my wife sober.’”
Wiseman says it all boils down to one thing – bad choices.
“Our life is a series of choices and I teach guys in jail that our belief systems dictate our behaviors and our choices dictate our consequences. Never confuse consequences with fate. It’s not fate, its what you did. Restorative justice says ‘go do your time’.”
Because of alcohol and drug abuse, many of them have burned a lot of bridges as a result.
“These guys and gals have burned every bridge they could burn behind them,” Wiseman said.
It’s always encouraging to see the Body of Christ working together in Akron.
“We work in conjunction with the Haven of Rest and some other housing programs here in Akron,” Wiseman said.
“We collaborate with some of the ministries that you’ve already interviewed,” Shawhan added, “Janet Paul and the Abah House, South Street Ministries, and other ministries, organizations and secular groups.”
That is what we like to hear!
Future’s Looking Bright
Back to the idea of opening supervised ministry homes, Shawhan said “We’ve been praying over some farmland in Springfield for four years. It is forty acres. We want to build some homes and get men and women out of the inner city, teaching them not only Biblical principles but about finances and things like that.”
If they get the property, they want to build Habitat for Humanity homes there.
“We want to take them out of the inner city, out of generational poverty and generational incarceration and just work with them.”
Shawhan and Wiseman can definitely use financial support in spreading the message of the gospel to the lost and hopeless in our prisons. They both do contracting on the side to help pay expenses.
“Some people work to stay out of jail,” Wiseman said, “but we work to stay in jail!”
They also have a great need for mentors and Bibles (preferably the New International Version due to their literacy rate).
To help this ministry in any capacity please contact Dennis Shawhan at (330) 643-8663 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information check out their website at brokenchainsministry.org.