By Sriya Reddy
After decades in and out of prison, Ricky Christopher had enough.
He knew something had to change.
Christopher’s first arrest was when he was 18. Now, in his early 60s, he said he didn’t want to be a burden to his family anymore.
“My family had stuck with me multiple times going in and out of the system,” Christopher said. “They stuck with me so many times with my addiction. Doing good, doing bad, doing good and then bad. The only thing I could give back to my family was not interfere in their life.”
While in prison, Christopher learned about Restoration Outreach of Dallas Ministries, or ROD Ministries.
Restoration Outreach of Dallas is a faith-based organization that works with men in prison and gives them a path to follow. The nonprofit teaches weekly classes in the prison revolving around the Bible and bettering oneself. Many volunteers with the organization have been in prison and went through the program themselves.
When the men in the program get out of prison, they have the opportunity to live with Restoration Outreach of Dallas in its aftercare facility until they are able to stand on their own two feet.
“I kept hearing ROD Ministries is the most strict place in the world,” Christopher said. “They’ll crack that whip over your hand and everything and it’s just the rules. It was about rules. And I realized I always did real well in prison. Because there’s rules, there’s structure, there’s people telling you what to do. And so I kind of identified with that.”
Christopher left Huntsville in March 2020, and was grateful to have a familiar face from ROD Ministries waiting outside the gates for him with clean clothes ready to take him out to eat.
“He took me to a house where I felt carpet for the first time in six years,” Christopher said. “It was a clean house and there were no bunk beds. The bathrooms are clean and people had respect for each other. And that’s just where it started from there.”
Dr. Jeff Parker, executive director of ROD Ministries, joined the organization in the late 1990s and became the executive director in 2010. He said that he’s passionate about building relationships with people in prison because they often have no place to go.
“My concern was, what happened to these guys when they came home from prison?” Parker said. “ROD had this phrase that they used and we still use: ‘We want to walk along beside men when they are released from prison.’”
Finding a place
About 70% of Texas prisons operate without air conditioning in living areas, leaving the people inside battling summer heat with temperatures reaching 110 degrees. In some units, like Hutchins State Jail, the chapel is the only area with air conditioning. Parker said that some men join ROD only as a way to escape the heat. He also said that this is just one example of inmates not having a voice in their living conditions and future.
“Imagine having a felony with no place to go and no one to speak up for you,” Parker said. “It’s very hard if you have a felony to get employment.”
ROD Ministries, a nonprofit organization, works both inside and outside of the system. It holds classes with about 100 students in 10 criminal justice facilities across the state. Inmates go through three levels of classes through ROD on a weekly basis.
ROD began in 1998 with the mission of keeping former inmates out of prison through relationship-building, faith and community. Volunteers and pastors teach the classes, and many on the ROD team were previously incarcerated.
After a member gets out, ROD is there to greet them, get them a meal and help them adjust to the ROD housing in southern Dallas. There, residents will have to stay sober, follow strict rules and earn a living. For example, Christopher works for Parker’s landscaping company.
ROD also hosts a monthly breakfast at their southern Dallas office for the formerly incarcerated and their families.
By the fall, Parker hopes to start working with women who get out of prison as well.
“The beauty of this is the same people that they see teaching the class on the inside of the system are the same people that are going to pick them up at the bus station and bring him to the house,” Parker said. “So he’s not being picked up by a stranger. And we’re not going to pick up a stranger. Most of the guys we know and have known them for two to three years before they come home.”
Every Wednesday, the men at Hutchins State Jail gather in the chapel to meet with Parker and ROD ministries’ volunteers. After the gathering, each class splits off with a volunteer teacher.
As the men complete courses and move on to the next level of classes, ROD throws a graduation celebration complete with drinks, cookies and prayer.
ROD works with people incarcerated for all types of crimes, no matter how heinous. Jason Ware, 50, is serving 35 years and is now at Hutchins State Jail after being convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse of a child.
As a survivor of childhood trauma himself, he said he felt a lot of anger. For most of his life, he was against religion.
“I was a God-hater,” Ware said. “My life was tumultuous — physical, mental and sexual abuse. I blamed God for all that I’ve gone through.”
Now, Ware said that Wednesdays, the day of ROD classes, are the highlight of his week. Although he is grappling with his faith, he has hope.
“Now, I feel love from Dr. Parker and God’s love,” he said.
Individuals who have convictions related to sexual assault with children cannot stay in ROD housing after their release, but they can stay with New Name Ministry, another group ROD partners with.
Tyler native Keunte Erwin, 42, has been with ROD ministries for about six months at Hutchins State Jail for drug-related charges.
“I learned that it’s what you want to get out of it,” Erwin said. “If it’s patience, self control — I learned that Jesus Christ is always with you.
“There’s always love. I learned that there’s true family.”