Dismas Journey welcomes returning citizens
By Megan Walsh
The Catholic Telegraph
We’re all sinners in our own way,” said Tony Stieritz, director of the archdiocesan Catholic Social Action Office. “We’re all on this Dismas Journey together.”
On July 25, more than 50 people gathered at St. Vivian Parish in Finneytown to learn about the Dismas Journey, a movement in the archdiocese to address poverty, violence, returning citizens and second chances.
Dismas is the name given to the repentant thief who died on the cross next to Jesus after saying, “Jesus, remember when you come into your kingdom.” The second chance that Jesus gives to him is what returning citizens are seeking in the archdiocese.
“My name is Dominic Duren and I am a returning citizen,” said the director of the HELP Program, a local ministry that works with ex-offenders on accessing job training, resources and mentoring. “I was charged with a felony and have served my time.”
Unfortunately, when returning citizens enter back into society, they continue to suffer long after having served out their sentence.
“We use the term ‘returning citizen’ to avoid the negative connotations with ‘ex-con,’ ‘ felon,’ or ‘offender,'” said Duren.
Joining Duren were fellow returning citizens Terry Jones, also with the HELP Program, and Karen Warren, representing Project WESTT, organization that helps women who have a felony record find employment, work on life skills, financial planning, family support and help with medical and mental issues. They each spoke about their situations that led to making a mistake, their convictions as felons, their time spent in prison and now that they have served their time, their struggles of being a returning citizen.
The problem is the poverty cycle that is suffocating inner-city residents. “Poverty in early life is poison to children,” said Victor Garcia, pediatric surgeon at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “Persistent stress during childhood can impaire our ability to regulate stress later on in life.”
Poverty leads to violence, which leads to stressed individuals making choices they normally would not if they weren’t backed into a corner. After these returning citizens serve their time, they seek a second chance but unfortunately, receiving a job with a criminal record is incredibly hard and thus, they are pushed back into poverty and the cycle continues.
“People really want a second chance but no one will give them the opportunity,” said Daniel Meyer, founder and CEO of Nehemiah Manufacturing Company.
Meyer established Nehemiah with the intention of creating jobs and employing returning citizens. What started as eight employees has grown to 25 and there is nothing stopping them from reaching 100.
“We create jobs, we give second chances, and now they’re my family,” said Meyer.
Most of Nehemiah’s employees are returning citizens with a record; the others probably had a drug abuse problem at some point in their life. “They come to work and they say ‘thank you,’” said Meyer. “They are so grateful to have their job.”
Nehemiah is one for-profit business that is showing Cincinnati what a second chance can do for an entire community. Meyer said it doesn’t stop here. He’s working on beginning Beacon of Hope Business Alliance to create more jobs, to inform more employers, and to give even more second chances. It will be a business initiative involving many companies that could quite literally transform Cincinnati.
“Poverty from not giving men and women a second chance is reinforced and directly affects their children,” said Garcia. “Children are dying from poverty [in Cincinnati].”
The Dismas Journey is focused on reminding Catholics that Jesus taught forgiveness and that we should be showing it to others also. Through the efforts of the HELP Program, Project WESTT, and the AMOS Project, a federation of local congregations dedicated to promoting justice, returning citizens can become citizens of society again and help end the poverty cycle.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” said Meyer.