CHICAGO – As the weekly Overcomers Support Group meeting begins, parolees and recovering drug addicts clap in sync to a soul-stirring gospel jam.
I got, got the victory/I got the sweet, sweet victory in Jesus.Within moments, the Rev. James Coleman, the group’s founder, is on fire, clenching his fists as if he’s about to give the devil a black eye.
“You are not rejected, you are accepted,” Coleman preaches, eliciting shouts of “Amen!” from the men and women gathered at a West Side youth center.
For the last two years, Coleman, 47, has helped ex-offenders claim victory – first in prison, then upon release – as the architect of a small but innovative program that helps them transition back to society as productive members. The program, which is voluntary, is only available to inmates at the Sheridan Correctional Center in LaSalle County, but it has been so successful that the Illinois Department of Corrections plans to expand it to other prisons.
The formula is simple: create neighborhood councils including parole officers, social service providers, religious institutions and residents that work with ex-offenders to help them rebuild their lives.
Coleman, a former drug addict, inspires them to change by sharing his story of redemption.
The rebellious son of a single mother, he began using cocaine at 15, savored success as a chef as a young man, then lost it all to drugs before his spiritual rebirth behind bars.
“People just don’t wake up and decide to go to prison,” Coleman said. “Most (inmates) have gone through a process of being battered emotionally, in their soul.”
Coleman connects with ex-offenders in that wounded place.
He was once so addicted that he carjacked a woman at knifepoint in 1995 outside a bar in Portland, Ore.
He remembers swerving between lanes in the stolen Hyundai sedan with a crack pipe in one hand and a 40-ounce beer bottle in his lap moments before his arrest.
Sitting in an Oregon jail cell with 7Â½ years on his back, he cried so hard that the tears formed a puddle at his feet.
“God, I’ll do whatever you want me to do,” Coleman cried out. “Just don’t let my life be destroyed.”
Larry Hayes, who teaches a job-preparedness class at Sheridan, which is one of the nation’s largest drug-treatment prisons, has witnessed how Coleman inspires inmates.
“He touches them in a way that they understand the emotional pain that he went through, that they’re going through,” said Hayes, a vocational trainer with the Chicago-based Safer Foundation. “He reassures them that they’re not alone.”
Faith-based programs, such as Coleman’s, are increasingly a part of new initiatives to help those who have been incarcerated to re-enter society.
The state Department of Corrections has invested in creating two Community Support Advisory Councils – one each on the West and South Sides of Chicago, neighborhoods with the greatest number of returning parolees in the city.
“The concept was to build a network of community people who would begin interaction with inmates while they were in prison to keep their mind set on returning home,” said Deanne Benos, assistant director of the state Department of Corrections. “A lot of people leave the facility with the mindset of an inmate or criminal returning home, not as a contributing member of a community.”
State corrections officials plan to duplicate the councils across the state, leaning heavily on Coleman’s vision.
Most days, Coleman can often be found in his red Mercury Mountaineer, gospel music flowing from the speakers, answering one of two cell phones as he shuttles between community meetings, halfway houses and drug rehab centers.
The centerpiece of Coleman’s program is the weekly Overcomers Support Group, which is part church revival, part 12-Step program, and draws about 40 ex-offenders, many of whom Coleman visited in prison.
Every Thursday at 7:30 p.m. the group meets in a classroom with bright walls decorated with cutouts of Martin Luther King Jr. and a framed picture of The Little Engine That Could.
Coleman often stands up front, worn King James Bible in his right hand, peering into their souls.
Coleman knows what it means to overcome. He was born in the projects of West Seattle in 1959, the ninth of 10 children.
His father was killed in a car accident shortly before Coleman’s birth. That absence has haunted Coleman his entire life and motivates his outreach to men who are often fatherless.
“You know, I never had a dad,” said Coleman, a father of three boys. “I always wanted to be a father because I knew what it was like not to have a father.”
At age 13, he tried pot. At 15, he was drinking alcohol, snorting cocaine and committing burglaries.
By the time he graduated from high school, he was a functional addict – employed chef by day, junkie by night.
“All I wanted to do was get high,” said Coleman, who landed in a fleabag hotel in Portland. “I finally ended up committing a carjacking to go to Seattle to get dope.”
After his arrest in 1995, Coleman was convicted of first-degree robbery and unlawful use of a motor vehicle and received a mandatory sentence of 90 months in an Oregon prison.
His first day there, he met two men with bulging biceps and Bibles. They invited him to church. That act eventually led Coleman to the Book of Jonah, in which a great fish swallows a prophet who disobeys God.
The scripture triggered a spiritual awakening in Coleman.
“I recognized that I had never listened to anybody,” he recalls. “I recognized that I was my biggest enemy.”
Coleman prayed and fasted for deliverance. He asked God to keep his children and fiance, now wife of five years, Nancy. She was a passenger in the stolen Hyundai the day Coleman was arrested.
A voice came to him. Coleman says it was God: “James, you’ve been serving the devil all your life. It’s time you serve me now.”
Coleman began taking Bible courses and counseling fellow inmates. He got married in prison.
After his release in 2002, he launched a ministry in Portland to help ex-convicts find work. But the non-profit folded when funding dried up. He came to Chicago in 2004 to work for the Westside Health Authority.
“I wanted to get him out here to help (ex-offenders) find jobs,” the authority’s executive director, Jacqueline Reed, said. “James has opened up a lot of restaurants. My hope is that we can open a restaurant to hire these guys.”
Coleman knows that jobs are vital to successful re-entry, but he says that a change in thinking is just as crucial.
“I could give you a job right now,” Coleman said. ” But if you’ve still got criminal thinking, you’re just going to be an employed criminal waiting for the next opportunity to rob.”