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Robin Wertz, case manager, and the Rev. Steve Byrd, director, staff Exodus House in Oklahoma City.

Photo courtesy of Exodus House

Robin Wertz, case manager, and the Rev. Steve Byrd, director, staff Exodus House in Oklahoma City.

Photo courtesy of Bshara Nassar

Bshara Nassar

Photo by General Board of Church and Society

The Ecumenical Youth Council in Europe brings together Christian youth from across the continent.

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Changing lives, building understanding

Heather Peck Travis
March-April 2016

Peace with Justice ministries

When Robin Wertz was 40, she had lost custody of her children, lost her mother to cancer, and "sold drugs to make ends meet." When she was sentenced to a minimum-security prison for drug trafficking, she thought, "I was done, truly done."

But she wasn't done – and neither was her faith journey.

While in prison, she says, "I began to draw near to God." Although she became heavily involved in church while in prison, she was still "early in my journey" when she was released. It was then she heard of Exodus House and applied.

Founded in 1998, Exodus House has co-ed facilities in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Oklahoma, that primarily assist non-violent and non-abusive offenders, many of whom have children. Funded in part by the Peace with Justice Sunday offering administered by the General Board of Church and Society, Exodus House was developed by the Oklahoma Conference and Stan Basler, executive director of the conference's Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries (CJAMM).

Today the case manager for Exodus House in Oklahoma City, Wertz celebrated 13 years of recovery in March.

"All the things we teach, I learned; and it worked for me," she says. "I graduated the program, moved into my own apartment and kept going to church and work. I still have the same AA sponsor."

Wertz says about half of the residents graduate from the program and the recidivism rate is below 3.5 percent.

"Every time I pick up a new resident, I live my testimony over through them. We face the fears, the nerves and obstacles together. I am forever blessed to be a part of this ministry. It truly changes lives."

Meagan Gaddis was 27 years old when she moved from Exodus House to her own apartment on Jan. 1, 2015. In a December 2014 letter to the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, Church and Society general secretary, she credited "the love and encouragement of Robin Wertz and all of the residents here (who) inspired me to continue on the path of recovery."

Preparing to graduate from Exodus House, Gaddis was anticipating spending "two whole weeks with my children" who live with their father. Living rent-free at Exodus House had let her save enough of the money she had earned from the part-time job she held while attending Oklahoma Central University full-time that she could take the time off work.

When the recovering drug addict had a choice of places to live, Gaddis chose Exodus House "because I knew that I needed to be exposed to God through church." She is pursuing a degree in sociology in order to "work with other addicts and also try to come up with better ways that society handles addiction."

"Welcoming Meagan and her family into a new way of being out of incarceration is one critical way we are building peace in this world," Henry-Crowe said in reponse to the letter.

Exodus House typically serves 28-30 people per year from around 250 applicants. "[Exodus House residents] will be discharged, on probation or parole and at times on a leg monitor, but all come directly to us upon release," says Wertz. "The Exodus offers 10 [apartments] for residents. All of our apartments have a church sponsor and [the congregation] helps residents with gift cards and personal hygiene products when they arrive. Congregations donate much of our furniture.

"We are a 6- to 9-month program and require all our residents to be assessed by a minister and licensed alcohol and drug counselor," she says. "A treatment plan will be determined by his assessment and based on their addiction needs, their mental health, trauma and family and spiritual needs."

All residents attend 12-step Alcoholic Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Co-Dependents Anonymous and other meetings three to five times a week and receive random drug and alcohol screenings. They also attend church twice a week, Wertz says.

"While they are here, they are not charged any rent," she says. "Our expectation is for them to have $1,200 saved by graduation. When they graduate, they take all their furniture and household goods with them and we will restock their apartments for the next resident."

Peace with Justice Sunday

On Trinity Sunday (May 22, 2016) – the first Sunday after Pentecost – United Methodists focus on peace with justice: responding to God's call for a faithful, just, disarmed and secure world.

The Peace with Justice observance includes receiving a special offering. Half of the gifts support mission projects in the annual conference where the congregation is located and half support projects around the world.

Peace with Justice offerings in 2015 provided $41,400 for grants to 15 ministries selected by the General Board of Church and Society. Exodus House was among the recipients as were Ecumenical Youth Council in Europe and the Nakba Museum Project of Memory & Hope in University Park, Maryland.

To find information about applying for a Peace with Justice grant, visit www.umc-gbcs.org/conference-connections.

Nakba Museum Project

"When I came to Washington D.C. in 2011, I was amazed at all the monuments and museums and how proudly Americans tell their story through them," says Bshara Nassar, founder and executive director of the Nakba Museum Project. "Even other nations' stories are honored here. But I felt lost because I never found a museum that told my story; so I decided to create one."

The Nakba Museum Project was formed to provide "a safe environment" to share the stories of Palestinians through art, storytelling and performance. "My voice was silenced in Palestine but I have reclaimed it in the United States," Nassar says.

"Nakaba ("catastrophe" in Arabic) refers to the more than 700,000 Palestinians who lost their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and represents a dark period in the Palestinian existence," he says. "However, the Nakba is not just a singular event in the past; it is an ongoing reality for Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation. ... Israel's Nakba Law, passed in 2011, has further silenced these deeply personal and human stories by making it illegal for public organizations to raise awareness about the Nakba."

The project is the first step toward developing a museum in Washington to deepen the conversations on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Nassar says. By empowering Palestinians to tell their story in the United States, he believes, "we create a more objective discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that Palestinians can regain their civil and human rights."

A scholarship from the General Board of Global Ministries allowed Nassar to earn a master's degree in conflict transformation at Eastern Mennonite University.

Ecumenical Youth Council in Europe

Founded in 1968, the Ecumenical Youth Council in Europe (EYCE) is run fully by young people "to promote justice, peace, integrity of creation and human rights through empowerment of young people and interreligious dialogue," says Christophe Luyten, EYCE general secretary.

Funded in part by The United Methodist Church and European Youth Foundation, the council is an umbrella organization serving supporting member organizations from 24 countries and young Europeans "who are interested to join an ecumenical movement and to learn more about the shared Christian faith," says Luyten, who is from Brussels, Belgium. The ministries are located throughout the continent.

"Our goal is not to form one church structure, but to look for a means to work together in a modern and dynamically changing European society," he says. "Aspects of peace and justice programs are deep in the core of work that EYCE does. We are addressing issues related to justice, such as ecological justice and integrity of creation, poverty and social inclusion and human rights."

Heather Peck Travis is a freelance journalist living in Glasgow, Kentucky