Church Helps Felons Get 'Off the Wrong Side of the Law'

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The Justice Department has created a program called the Fugitive Safe Surrender Program, where offenders can turn themselves in at local churches. The Rev. Ernest McNear, of the True Gospel Tabernacle Family Church, is a coordinator of the program in Philadelphia. McNear is joined by James Williams, who turned himself in at Rev. McNear's church, to discuss the program's effectiveness.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, what you had to say about the campaign for the White House race, the fiscal crisis and how to help bipolar kids. That's our BackTalk segment, and we'll have that in just a few minutes. But first, Faith Matters. Now, this might not sound like a faith issue, but hold on. Across the country, there are more than a million Americans who are hiding from law enforcement. They are people with outstanding warrants who failed to show up at court dates, often for minor offenses. But status as a fugitive no matter how small the crime sometimes causes people to give up their meaningful connections to society to detach themselves form work, from friends, even family. And chasing fugitives who've committed minor offenses can bog down a system and distract law enforcement from pursuing dangerous and violent criminals.

In response, the Justice Department has created a new initiative, the Fugitive Safe Surrender Program where offenders are given a chance to turn themselves in at local churches. Philadelphia is the latest city to participate in the program and it's one of the most successful, over 1200 offenders turned themselves in at True Gospel Tabernacle there last week. Safe Surrender is the focus of our Faith Matters conversation and joining us to talk about is the Reverend Ernest McNear, he is the pastor of True Gospel Tabernacle and coordinator of the program for Philadelphia. Also with him is James Williams he turned himself in at Reverend McNear's church. I welcome you both. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Reverend ERNEST MCNEAR (Pastor, True Gospel Tabernacle): Good morning, Michelle and thank you for having us.

Mr. JAMES WILLIAMS (Fugitive, Participant, Fugitive Safe Surrender Program): It's such a pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: All right, thank you. So, Reverend McNear let's start by asking that, the program is set up by the martial service and I understand that you actually went out of your way to bring this program to your church in Philadelphia. Why did you think this was needed?

Rev. MCNEAR: Well that's true, Michelle. What actually happened is that I saw that this particular program was a natural outgrowth of the prison ministries and re-entry ministries that we have done for years at True Gospel Tabernacle Church of God and Christ. And also with our arm of ministry called Kingdom Care Re-entry Network. We've been doing prison ministry and re-entry for many years. And when I saw this, it was brought to my attention by my colleague Reverend Lynn Crowe. And when I saw it, I prayed and I just was led up the Lord to bring this to Philadelphia. I saw it as something that was definitely needed and it was truly a re-entry format. Whenever you can get people that are wanted by the law, get them free from this legal issue. All of a sudden, they are re-entering back into society and they are reconnecting. So that's why I felt very, very strongly about bringing it to Philadelphia...

MARTIN: But why are people not turning themselves in? I mean that maybe that sounds like a stupid question...

Rev. MCNEAR: No.

MARTIN: But presumably people know, that you know, somebody's looking for you and it's not going to be nice if they find you. So why don't people turn themselves in?

Rev. MCNEAR: Well, that's a very good question, and is - there's no one answer. But I will try to give you some insight into some of the answers that I've come up with. And mainly, we find that in urban America, there are seen to be, have grown to be a relationship of - adversarial relationship between the community and criminal justice system. And most common citizens are intimidated by the law. So, therefore, they get into some trouble, many times they don't have an attorney. They are intimidated by court system, they don't know how to handle it and so they won't go to court. And then they are wanted, and so they are living now in a state of fear. So that - fear grips them, and they don't know what to do. That's one of the reasons.

MARTIN: Let me talk to Mr. Williams about that. Mr. Williams?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Hey, how are you doing?

MARTIN: I'm all right. I understand that you went to church and turned yourself in as I understand the back story, you were charged with drug possession back in 2006, you missed the court date. There was a warrant...

Mr. WILLIAM: Yeah.

MARTIN: Out for you for two years, right?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes.

MARTIN: Why didn't you turn yourself in, what was going on?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, the actual warrant wasn't for - actually a two-year warrant. The case was a two-year-old case, but the warrant was about two or three month - I just caught the warrant maybe out two or three months ago. And, going back to what he was saying about the fair people, sometimes it was not ever to fair people which is the craziness are going inside the courtroom. It gets to you so much in the morning that you sometimes, that before you even get a chance to make it to court, you've already missed your court date because the lines and different stuff like that down there so. Speaking for me, that's why I missed mine because of different lines and getting in and out of line for my phone and then another line for this. I had just came up and ended up missing it. But...

MARTIN: So what was that like while you knew you missed the court date, and so what was that like? Was it weighing on you?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, it was. It definitely was.

MARTIN: Well, what you were worried about?

Mr. WILLIAMS: In the back, in the front. First thing in the front of your mind, you're always wondering about the jail time. I mean nobody's going make you just say I'm going to miss court. It mean, once you missed it, you realize, you know, I missed it but - damn, I might be going to jail or you know, it just - first and foremost, it would be a jail time on you.

MARTIN: And is it also humiliating? The idea that somebody could, you know, I don't know. Snatch you up in front of your family or something like that?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes, very humiliating. At the simple fact, there's no one and you give a copy of your name. You're going to jail.

MARTIN: If you're just joining...

Mr. WILLIAMS: They're going to - you say your name.

MARTIN: I understand. If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're talking about the Fugitive Safe Surrender Program. Our guests are the Reverent Ernest McNear, he's a Philadelphia pastor who's participating in the program. And with James Williams, who turned himself in at Reverend McNear's church. Mister Williams, if you just tie a bow on it, how when you went to Reverend McNear's church, what was the experience like?

Mr. WILLIAMS: It was a very positive, a very like emotional experience. I mean because it was - I've never known for a church in the law enforcement community to link up like that before. So it was very like eye opening experience for me.

MARTIN: I see what you're saying. Let me ask you - put a call out to the listeners, we want to hear from you. Are you or somebody you know dealing with an outstanding warrant, do you want to come in but you don't know how? Are you afraid to? Would you take the opportunity to turn yourself in at a church if it was offered to you? To tell us what you think, visit our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. You can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again is 202-842-3522. Reverend McNear, what I'm hearing from Mister Williams is that it's - first of all, it's dignified, it's orderly and its - you don't have to worry about being humiliated. That people are kind of explaining to you what's going on. In a way though, isn't that kind of failure of the system, I mean, shouldn't people be able to go to court and be treated in a dignified fashion? Shouldn't it be orderly in court, I mean why should you have to do this?

Rev. MCNEAR: Well, Michelle. As I said before that the relationship between a community and between the criminal justice system, especially in the urban community, has not been very, very good. And what we know of today is that the jails, the prisons. They are overcrowded, and it becomes just a business many times, a legal system. Whenever you have a country like such as ours that has over two million people imprisoned, and when you have county jails that are overflowing and they are overcrowded, you just have a terrible situation that makes for instability and makes for violence and so forth. So when someone is wanted, regardless of what the warrant is for, if they turn themselves in at the Criminal Justice System or on city hall or wherever it is, they turn themselves in, the first thing that happen is you're arrested. And then you're dealt with like you're a criminal. However, what has happened in this program, we find that it's not such an argument about separation of church and state. What we have now is cooperation of church and state. Even I would go so far as to say that you see the perfect demonstration of law and grace. The law, yeah.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask you about that though. Given that you pointed out, that often times they're - there is this adversarial relationship between law enforcement and the community. And there is supposed to be a separation between church and state. It's one of the things that we pride ourselves on I think in this country's kind of one of the pillars of our constitutional system. Are you worried at all about the church being seen as an extension of law enforcement?

Rev. MCNEAR: Not at all, because there is something called justice. And this justice that I'm speaking of is in the theological sense. And justice is righteousness and has done right. And whenever you are in the church, church brings forth what we call deliverance and you know it. Deliverance and salvation and those kind of things. But when it's actualized, we find that there's a mandate from Christ. That says that we must visit those that are imprisoned. Sending the captive free, bringing good news to the poor, dealing with those that are on periphery of our society. And I think that when the church does that, we find that we are truly doing the gospel rather than just preaching the gospel. And so therefore, I heard our great mayor of this city, when he was commending us for this, he said, actually, Reverend, we served the same people. And we do. And so therefore, the church simply is this informing the law with grace. It's because those that turned themselves in, they receive what is called favorable consideration for doing the right thing and not to be what able to do the planning and we had such a comprehensive and compassionate team that did the planning for this great movement and people work so enthusiastic about trying to help people instead of just locking people up. And so, it was good that it came to the church because the church became a true sanctuary and even those on the side of the law, the judges, the attorneys, the D.As, and all the clerks, the probation officers, everyone - they were just, they had a different spirit. It wasn't just, lock them up - let's see. But their spirit was - let's see if we can work this out, let's help. And that's what I think the church really brought to this entire process.

MARTIN: Just to clarify that the - that literally there were there sheriffs, people from the Marshal Service, clerks, judges et cetera there so that the people who came in could literally get the hearing right then and there. They could get their issues disposed of right then and there, and often they could avoid arrest, and I guess for the benefit of the system is that they didn't have to go through the time in the expense of arresting people, processing people and doing all that. Reverend, can I ask you, your own minister, you mentioned that you have extensive - an extensive prison ministry, an extensive sort of ex-offender ministry, drug counseling, the whole works, but is there a personal story there with you that you could tell us about? Your own relationship with law enforcement I guess hasn't always been smooth.

Rev. MCNEAR: Well, you know, Michel. Well, yes, I do have a personal story and - but it's not like - it's not so different than many people that my generation. I was raised by my mother. I came up in the projects here in Philadelphia and what has happened is, when I was a very young guy, graduated from high school in 1968 and went to Berkeley College of Music but got involved in drugs, I was on drugs for 10 years, shooting drugs in my veins, but traveling all over the place, I had to drop out of college.

But then, when I was 27 years old - and of course, during that time, I had a lot of bouts with the law and I didn't - fortunately I was not incarcerated for a long time, but it was still a life of crime and activity, just was not productive. But then, eventually when I was 27, I really gave my life to Christ and the Lord delivered me and from that time to this, I've been serving the Lord and I went back into the prisons real soon taking my saxophone and my Bible even before I was a pastor, and I've been the pastor and founder of True Gospel Tabernacle Church of God and Christ for 23 years. And since then, I was able to get my undergraduate degree, my graduate degree, and my doctoral degree.

MARTIN: Well, that's wonderful.

Rev. MCNEAR: And I've just been serving God, you know, in these areas. Not only with just the prison ministry and re-entry, but we do a HIV and AIDS ministry. We operate a - elementary school and we do several things concerning health and drug and alcohol counseling as you said.

MARTIN: Yeah, you got a lot going on.

Rev. MCNEAR: And let me say this, Michel.

MARTIN: Briefly.

Rev. MCNEAR: Because this is important. Yes. When we did this, first let's say, surrender. We did not only allow these people to go through their cases but when they came out, there were social service agencies there to help them to reconnect, mental health, drug and alcohol even testing for HIV and so many other things.

MARTIN: OK.

Rev. MCNEAR: That we had there also.

MARTIN: That's wonderful. Mr. Williams, just very briefly, how are you doing?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I'm doing fine. Actually, I'm getting a lot of - like he says social services now. So, I'm actually in the process of trying to, you know, get back out here and live my life and find me a job and get ready to live right. I mean, I'm off the wrong side of the law, and I don't got plans on going back. So, I'm just trying to live right now.

MARTIN: All right. Well, let's hope - what would you like to do?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I would like the - actually, I like this. I'm into broadcasting and stuff like this. I like this.

MARTIN: All right. OK, well, let's hope that that happens. Let's hope that that happens. The Reverend Ernest McNear is the pastor of the True Gospel Tabernacle in Philadelphia, his church hosting in Fugitive Safe Surrender Program for the city of Philadelphia. It was extremely successful, James Williams and a former fugitive who turned himself in at the church last week. They both joined us from Philadelphia. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. WILLIAMS: You're more than welcome.

Rev. MCNEAR: And thank you, Michel. God bless you.

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