HERRIN, Ill. (BP) — “Pastor Hurricane! Pastor Hurricane! Me next!” a 9-year-old redhead shouted.
“That’s not his name, Dominic! That’s his church,” the boy’s mother chided. “He’s Pastor Gee.”
“Me, me, Pastor Gee!” Dominic chanted. He wanted his turn on the bicycle training path.
On a warm day behind the Herrin House of Hope soup kitchen and thrift shop, pastor Jeffrey Gee of Hurricane Memorial Baptist Church in Herrin, Ill., and several volunteers taught children bike safety, complete with helmets and a course lined with orange traffic cones. The bikes they rode were second-hand, but they had been completely repaired and spruced up in the church’s bike shop. It’s all part of Gee’s plan to keep the kids out of trouble, and at the same time teach former convicts a trade to keep them from returning to prison.
By Gee’s calculations, a fourth of Herrin’s population “has been in jail for at least one day,” said Gee, “many for a year or two.” That’s believable in a state that has 45,000 people in prison right now. This fact led the Hurricane church to start a “re-entry ministry” five years ago. Today their outreach to former prisoners includes a 12-step program, gardens, housing, and their ever-expanding bicycle shop.
World of wheels
The basement under the sanctuary of Hurricane Memorial is packed with bicycles, a hundred or more in rows and rows. Gee buys them at police auction — stolen and broken bikes that can’t be reunited with their owners — and brings them to the workshop. New repairman Gene had one turned upside down on a worktable. In his 50s, Gene is one of four men recently released from prison who live in the church’s former parsonage, and who work on the bikes.
Hurricane Memorial has a big vision for Gene and others like him. The pastor characterizes his congregation as a neighborhood church. With 80 members, “we’re really just a small church,” he noted, “but we do a lot.”
“When I first encountered what Hurricane Memorial has done under Pastor Gee’s leadership, I was struck at how much ministry to the community they were doing as a small church,” said Stephen Williams, one of Illinois Baptist State Association’s zone consultants for southern Illinois. It doesn’t take a big church to have a big impact.
The parsonage serves as a halfway house, giving the people who stay there time to get re-integrated into society. With the bike shop, as well as an organic garden and greenhouse, there is no shortage of work to be done.
The bike program allows volunteer workers to prove that they can show up for work faithfully. They earn a reference in order to get a paying job. And they can choose and fix their own bicycle, a means of transportation to a future job.
The road to recovery
Keeping these men from returning to prison is a considerable challenge.
In Illinois, 51.7 percent of former inmates are sentenced for later offenses and are back in jail within three years — higher than the national average. A Pew Research study shows if Illinois could cut its recidivism (return) rate by 10 percent, the state would save $40 million. More important, lives would be changed.
Gee and Hurricane Memorial Church are doing their part.
In addition to teaching work skills, the church offers a group meeting to help people stay clean and sober. Their Celebrate Recovery ministry offers a place to find biblical truth and community with those facing similar struggles. The 12-step program geared toward all “hurts, habits, and hang-ups” is based on principles from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It’s a national ministry started by pastor Rick Warren and Saddleback Community Church in California with chapters in local churches.
In May, Gee led “Celebrate Recovery Sunday,” conducting the morning service as if it were any other Celebrate Recovery night. The aim was to get the church members on board with the ministry, and to let them see how beneficial it can be for people struggling with addictions. For this small congregation, “Pastor Hurricane” continues stirring up ministry activity.
In just over a year, the bike team has repaired and distributed more than 100 bicycles free of charge. Gee hopes to open another shop in Marion about 12 miles away, making more bicycles available to kids and to adults who need transportation to work. “If you see an adult riding a bike around Herrin or Marion,” Gee said, “it’s probably one of ours.”