Ministries Provide Path for Prisoners
Gregory Oliver spent 20 years regretting decisions he made in his youth. His 1987 conviction for the murder of a Kansas City man led to a life sentence without the possibility of parole. While Oliver maintains his innocence, he accepts the path his life has taken as the path God intended for him.
"A lot of times, we don't understand those trials and tribulations," he said. "But God helped me to understand that sometimes, what we're going through, it isn't always about us. It's about Him working in and through us."
Oliver developed his faith behind bars with the help of prison chaplains and prison ministry groups. Christian Prison Ministries, Mission Gate and Inmates for Christ United are common visitors to correctional centers in Missouri and across the nation.
"Last month, we had 865 offenders go through the chapel program, participated in some way," said Chaplain Bruce Guile of the Algoa Correctional Center. "We had 264 volunteers come in and lead some type of self-help group, some time of worship, some type of anger management."
Oliver now assists Chaplain Guile.
"God has given me the opportunity to minister," Oliver explained. "A lot of times, he would have me, when I was the walls, for instance, go in and talk to people that was in the hospital, that was on their last knee or whatever. They couldn't see no hope, they couldn't look up, and God would give me the opportunity to go in and pray with them."
According to the Missouri Department of Corrections website, there are 31,000 inmates in the state, almost half of them violent offenders. Oliver estimates as few as 10% live as he does, with religion in their hearts.
One who does is Shareko Howard, who was convicted of first-degree murder 12 years ago and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Since he started his sentence, Howard's been searching for a way to be a better person and to express himself spiritually.
"They want to step up and make that change, and not just a change, but a transformation," Guile said. "They want to try and transform their hearts and be light, or do things that are pleasing to God, or what they understand as God."
Howard and Oliver agree that some inmates find religion in prison for the wrong reasons.
"It disgusts me because it's like they're stealing from my plate. They're stealing from my plate. And what I mean by that is when a person is insincere or is not sincere and is taking advantage of the faith-based program, they take from me."
But, the corrections department insists opportunities are needed for those men to explore their spirituality.
"These people need answers. And they are looking for hard-core answers, answers that really make a difference," said the department's Doug Worsham. "And to say, 'Just do your time and be out of our sight for awhile' really kind of lacks foresight, and is somewhat unwise because these inmates are returning to our neighborhoods with us and are going to be intermingling with us."
Howard and oliver agree that the state should do more to help. But, the corrections department said it's doing all it can to make sure religion, any religion, is available. Oliver is a Christian, while Howard explored several faiths before deciding that al-Islam makes the most sense for him.
"For years, when I was on the street, I grew up in a home where my dad and my mom taught me about the Lord and taught me about Jesus and taught me how to pray, the little simple prayer: 'Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep,' and all that. And I remember those prayers," said Oliver. "But I had gotten away from the Lord as I had gotten older and stuff like that. And when I was incarcerated, it helped me get back, dedicated in my faith with the Lord."
Added Howard, "I am currently the Imam, or spiritual leader, of the al-Islamic community here at Algoa."
Although both men are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, the state has determined they are reformed men who deserve a second chance.
"And I thank God that He made a plan and a purpose and touched the governor's heart to make it possible for me to be commuted," Oliver said. "But I will continue on, pursuing the clearing of my name once I get to the street. And I thank God for that."
Howard said, "Let me be the person who wants to pay taxes. Let me be that person who wants to go out and live that righteous life. Let me be the one who knows that I'm a man, who knows that I'm a human. I don't have a misconception or a misunderstanding that I'm less than a human. I know what it is to be a responsible man. Let me go out there and live then. And that's all we can ask for, and that's all we would ask you to do. We would ask you to keep the spotlight on us."
Oliver continued, "And he said, 'What has prison done for you?' Well, I say this, it wasn't prison. It was Christ. And if it wasn't for these types of spiritual programs that are available to men to grow and to mature, you couldn't be able to, you know, I don't see how any person could reform or change his ways without the Lord working and intervening in his life."
Gregory Oliver will be paroled next June. Shareko Howard will rejoin society next March. Both men said they are changed men, better men. Both insist their prison time let them embrace God fully, so they know they will never stray and they look forward to repaying their debts to society outside prison walls.