Why does God let bad things happen?
On the afternoon of July 24, the inmates who volunteered to take the Columbia County Jail’s Life Lessons program, convened in their pod for the class “Christian Perspectives,” lead by Brad Pyle, to discuss just that. One inmate in particular was struggling with the concept of hell and the idea that even the justice system offers a restorative option after time served.
“If I was a dad, I would never send my children to hell forever and have them burn for all eternity,” the inmate said. “That’s not very compassionate in my opinion.”
“We’ve actually talked about that one,” church liaison and instructor Bob Thiessen said. “And it will always be the same response. It’s not God that casts someone into hell for eternity. That person makes that decision themselves to reject God, to reject his only means by which one could be saved. If someone ends up in hell for eternity, that’s not what God wanted for them, and that answer will never change.”
Another inmate jumped in to agree. “I taught my son not to do drugs and drink and drive, but then if he goes out and drinks and drives and kills himself, that’s a choice he made. That’s the way I’m looking at it,” the inmate offered. “That’s his choice. I taught my kid not to drink and drive.”
“Did you stop loving him?” Thiessen asked.
“No. And then you hurt even more because I taught my son not to do this,” the inmate said.
“I’d like to volunteer that God always loves you and he always will, but he doesn’t save by his love,” Thiessen said. “He loves those that he doesn’t save.”
The class will take up two and a half hours of a 12-hour day. Throughout the week, the inmates will take classes covering grief, marriage enrichment, “seeing with your ears” which covers interpersonal communication, parenting, stress and anger management, as well as a class based on Dave Ramsey’s model covering financial freedom. Peppered in are various faith-based discussions, some after watching Christian movies. There are regular Bible studies, and the program offers Christian-based Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups twice a week. A new class has also been introduced to the program this year, called “Living with Mental Health Challenges.”
According to Captain Tony Weaver and Thiessen, there has been a noticeable improvement in behavior from those who have attended and completed one of the programs sessions, now in its fifth installment. Weaver said even local defense attorneys have asked how to get their clients into the program. Overall, 58 have successfully come through the courses.
Weaver said Life Lessons was brought to the jail in June 2018 based on an attempt to bring more programs in to address mental health issues in the jail, but when they landed on a similar program successfully running in Omaha, Nebraska at a 1,400-bed jail, the staff realized the program was about something deeper.
“We were looking all over the country at programs that were working and we stumbled across this program in Nebraska. When we started talking to them about it, we realized it wasn’t really about mental health as much as it was for the spiritual health of the individuals,” Weaver said. “We ultimately went and met with the people that run the Nebraska program, observed it in person, and they gave us all kinds of paperwork and stuff that we brought back. Then we reached out to the local churches.”
Thiessen was tapped as the liaison between the eight churches who came on board. Each class is run entirely by 36 volunteers from all walks of life, including teachers, truck drivers, city workers, and one who works with Bowing.
The program is funded through the Inmates Benefits Account – an account made up of anything outside of a physical item that an inmate might be charged for, like commissions from haircuts, phone calls and video visitations, but mostly from commissions made off of commissary sales.
Now in its fifth session, the program just began its second official year in operation in June. The investment to provide the classes has been relatively small compared to the overarching benefit to the inmates, an estimated $2,500, Weaver said, but much of that money comes down to one-time costs for items such as study materials and electronics that can be reused.
“It was a lot of upfront costs. The new mental health class cost $300 for the study material, but that material is good for multiple sessions. We ordered specific study Bibles that are easy to read, and those were nearly $70 a piece and we bought 20, but they’ve been used for a little over a year,” Weaver said.
The goal, Weaver said, was for the program not to be 100 percent faith based, so classes like “Financial Freedom” and those covering mental health issues were added. However, there is no requirement that the inmate be Christian. In point of fact, there is currently an inmate who identifies as Muslim taking the program, as well as some who identify with various Native American faiths.
There is a strict volunteer process for the inmates to take the program, and they are required to participate with 100 percent attendance and effort. There are only 18 beds available for the program, so based on interviews and classifications, the applicants are narrowed down and sent through an orientation. No one pushes anyone to convert and Weaver said there has been no pushback from the inmates on the faith-based curriculum, and in point of fact, no complaints at all.
The only additional class the inmates have asked for is to cover better ways to communicate when they’re struggling through intense emotions.
“There may be more things we could or should provide that we’re not, that’s more the concern I have,” Weaver said. “One of those is what the inmates were asking for along the way which has to do with communication. How do you communicate with others, especially in an anger situation, with your spouse or children? All those different forms of communication and since they run into a lot of trouble in those areas, we don’t have a class that deals specifically with those communication issues.”
However, Weaver assured, the fledgling program will continue to grow.
Inmates Robert Warner and Louis Sourjohn each completed Session 2 of the program, which ran from September 17 to December 23 in 2018, and both come from Native American backgrounds. Each said they will likely spend the next 25 years of their life behind bars.
Sourjohn, who said he ended up in the Columbia County Jail largely due to drugs, faces an extensive list of charges - some of them violent. Warner is at the jail on a United States Marshal hold, and said he landed behind bars due to a “lack of guidance.”
Sourjohn is boisterous, talkative, and quick with a deprecating joke and a laugh. Warner is quieter and softer spoken. They each came to their interview, also attended by Thiessen in a small holding room inside the jail, armed with notebooks full of carefully-kept notes from their time in Life Lessons.
Sourjohn admitted that, with being Native, he was initially hesitant to join the faith-based program and struggled with comparing the two faiths for a time.
“Before going in, I was thinking, ‘man, I don’t know if this is the right thing for me.’ But everything I was doing wasn’t really working, so I had to try something new to get a different outcome,” Sourjohn said. “So, now I get to say I’m just a Christian Native.”
Warner said what he liked most about the program was learning about sin – that it’s all the same whether it’s a small sin or a big one. For Sourjohn, it was the space to talk about his struggles that was most important.
“Being able to talk, being able to set a space for everybody – it was more than just, you know, God. It was a lot of us just being there together and it was just everything you needed to go on, a way to talk and a way to understand things,” Sourjohn said. “It was a way to put it in perspective. There’s so many things out there that you can be doing other than what you were doing. It was that good.”
Sourjohn and Warner said they have both noticed changes in their behavior since attending the program. Warner said he appreciated the routine he’d learned to take on, and Sourjohn admitted he’d had anger issues, problems with authority, and trouble connecting with others before the program – hard to believe when you meet the affable, enthusiastically talkative man.
Warner said, especially given his background which lacked guidance, he’d appreciated the parenting class. He is the father of 14 children, himself.
“It pretty much tells you how to be a man,” Warner said, flipping through the pages of his notebook. “I pretty much wrote everything down in class. Especially with the integrity – to do the right thing even when no one is looking.”
He still writes in his notebook regularly, the pages filled with neatly penned lines.
Both men said they have become active recruiters for the program, and now look forward to greeting the new inmates who come in. With a wide grin, Sourjohn said he’d convinced three or four inmates to attend the last session.
“I had this one guy singing these songs with me, the ones from Tim and Nadine that they do, how they lead the list of songs? So, I had this guy singing in the room and he’s like, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this,’” Sourjohn laughed. “I’m like, ‘It’s cool. Just go with it, dude.’”
Sourjohn’s only complaint was that he wished the program was longer. They expressed concerns that their fellow Native American inmates might not accept their new lessons learned when they move on to other facilities, but both were determined to continue on with their new education in spite of that fear.
When asked what they thought our readers should know about the program, Warner had a simple answer.
“They don’t have to come to jail to find God,” he said. “But I think I had to.”