In the spirit of the season, we are constantly bombarded with solicitations to give. From the Giving Tuesday campaign following Thanksgiving to NPR’s pledge drive, the messages to write a check and make a donation fill up our email inboxes and mail boxes every December. 

Glenn Fitzjerrell, founder of the aptly named Mission USA, based in Forest Park, takes giving to a different level. He has made it his life’s mission to make a difference in the lives of men and women who have spent time in prison. His unique approach to the problems this population faces upon release from prison also attempts to change the communities they live in for the better.

Fitzjerrell, his wife Jane and his staff at Mission USA have created a program called The Bridge, through which they guide ex-convicts to welcoming church homes. In order to make these connections, Fitzjerrell and crew first act as “spiritual secret shoppers,” traveling incognito to hundreds of Chicago-area churches searching for the few who can make a difference in the lives of former inmates.

The Genesis

Shortly after college, Fitzjerrell began working with juveniles behind bars and very soon noticed a need that was not being met. 

“I developed a real concern for what happens when people get out of prison,” Fitzjerrell recalled. “The answer on one side was ‘that’s not the prison’s issue.’ Everyone else wanted to have their own solution to what we call ‘after care.’ There are a lot of prison ministries doing great work and social services and church agencies doing great work but nothing to connect them.”

He moved to Chicago in the 1990s and formed The Bridge in 2004 out of his desire to be the link between the prison and outside service offerings. The basic plan was to connect ex-prisoners with a church to provide a spiritual home, stability and a community connection. In order to help the former inmates find a good fit, Mission USA holds weekly meetings every Tuesday night in a church basement. Visitors enjoy a meal as well as a worship service, and volunteers, pastors and Mission USA employees are able to visit with former prisoners to determine what needs they might have. 

Each Tuesday night meeting features three local pastors who are invited to preach for 10 minutes on a relevant topic submitted by the attendees. Fitzjerrell and his co-workers hand-pick the pastors invited to participate, and try to choose a mix that will appeal to the former prisoners. That’s where the secret shopping comes in.

A spiritual fit

Fitzjerrell noted that a number of superficial factors determine which churches and pastors are invited to participate. 

“First, we look at all parts of town,” he said. We have prisoners from all over, so it is important to represent a variety of neighborhoods. We also look at a variety of denominations. From liberal to conservative, from more lively to more bookish, we wanted to intentionally pick different types of services so they would have a buffet of choices.”

Surprisingly, the larger, more established churches often do not make the cut. They may be strong in numbers but lacking in the ability to welcome ex-cons with open arms. Fitzjerrell found that lesser-known, smaller houses of worship often showed a wealth of willingness and compassion.

Mission USA’s five employees and two volunteers visit and evaluate churches, taking into consideration the wide variety of factors that determine whether the churches will be welcoming to former prisoners who are looking to maintain and build a spiritual connection after release from prison. Using a rating system that takes into consideration service, greetings and preaching, Mission USA also considers bigger-picture, religious values. Fitzjerrrell calls one of these important factors “eternal security.”

“Eternal security means that if I enter into a relationship with God, and later on, I mess up, do I lose that salvation or do I keep it even though I’ve done something bad? If you keep it, that’s the idea of eternal security. That’s what we’re looking for with these churches.”

Making a difference

Fitzjerrell noted that a key to the success of The Bridge is forging a connection between the recently released and their spiritual community, which in turn can lead to strengthening those communities in general.

“A lot of these guys are former gang members,” he said. “They appreciate a top-down structure in which a pastor leads a congregation. We see about 80% of prisoner ministry groups are male, and they are very passionate about it in a street way. When they get out, these guys can help churches reach the neighborhood.”

The Bridge is often an entryway back into society for former prisoners. Fitzjerrell reaches out to residential programs and drug rehab facilities to get 40-50 people at each weekly meeting. Every attendee is welcome to share in the meal and keep coming back until they find a church that might be a good fit.

One of the big benefits to attending The Bridge is the sense of belonging it gives attendees. Fitzjerrell sees “the fellowship impact as the biggest impact by far.” He also notices pastors taking attendees under their wings and giving them a role to play in the church. “Discipleship and being mentored can be a way that these guys can show their community that they have turned things around. For the pastors, it can be a big benefit to have an introduction to a community.”

The pastors

After visiting over 200 Chicago-area churches, the Mission USA employees selected a group of approximately 15 pastors who fit the population’s needs. Of the group, Fitzjerrell noted, “the inner-city pastors understand how to reach people in tough circumstances.”

Pastor Mike Neal, of Bronzeville’s Glorious Light Church, is honored to have been selected to be a part of The Bridge. 

“We have a love for all people, regardless of their station in life,” Neal said. “The gospel that God will call us to the least of these really inspires us. When people come to us from The Bridge, they can have a sense of belonging and a safe space.”

Ted Powers, church planning coordinator at Woodbridge’s Mission North America, has been involved with The Bridge since its inception and preaches once a month at the weekly meeting. 

“This population that The Bridge is serving is sometimes labeled the underbelly of society,” he said. “I see guys light up after a meeting when they came in dragging. The Bridge is providing a sense of community and a renewed sense of purpose. Through The Bridge telling this population that they are still important to God, it addresses the heart as well as issues on the outside. Guys come in like they’re hopeless losers and walk away with the message that that’s not true.”

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