December 01, 2004 News & Features » Cover Story


First Calling 

Mark Earley returns to his roots in the ministry.

For Earley, 50, it is a homecoming. Three years after his defeat by Gov. Mark R. Warner, he has purged his political yearnings and returned to his first calling: the ministry. He is president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the nation's largest religious outreach to inmates.

Claiming an army of 100,000 volunteers, the fellowship believes prisoners cannot be reformed without accepting the gospel.

"A person isn't going to change simply because he's spent time in prison," Earley says. "Something has to change their heart. We believe one of the ways to change hearts is for someone to come into a relationship with God."

It all seems so liberating to Earley, who spent two years as a missionary in the Philippines before entering law and politics in the 1980s. He never shied away from acknowledging his deep faith during his 10 years as a Republican state senator from Chesapeake and four years as attorney general in Richmond, but he was never quite willing to discuss it, either.

These days, he's preaching whenever he gets the chance. He seems at ease. He's lost about 30 pounds since the election and has a flat stomach. His hair is shorter — almost a crew cut — and his face has become so thin that friends from the old days do a double take when they first see him.

Earley says he doesn't miss politics and harbors no ill will over his defeat by Warner in the 2001 race for governor.

"I don't regret a minute of it, but I also don't see myself ever getting back into it," he says. "The way I perceive it now is that politics is something I did during a season in my life, and that season is over."

By God's will, he adds.

Earley enjoyed the policy side of politics, which, for him, offered a subtle outlet for his religious convictions. In the Senate, he won passage of a law requiring doctors to notify parents before performing abortions on most teenage girls, a measure that had been defeated in Virginia 19 years in a row. As attorney general, he enlisted 3,000 adults to mentor inner-city youths from broken homes.

Campaigning never thrilled Earley, however. He tried to arrange his schedule to be home for dinner with his wife and six children. But the nonstop pace of the gubernatorial race was "much harder than I thought it would be," he says.

"The time that it takes, the emotional energy and the level of scrutiny are all picked up a huge notch when you run for governor," he says. "You sort of know that when you start out, but then you don't quite know it until you've been through it."

A self-described introvert, Earley says he sometimes found it difficult to focus. "In a campaign, you don't get time to process things, and, for me, that was frustrating."

Earley was not surprised by his defeat. He had time to prepare. "When I first got into politics, I began praying and asking the Lord that I would never have my identity wrapped up in it, that it would never be how I defined myself, so when it came time to lay it down either willingly or by determination of the voters, my life wouldn't be shattered."

He awoke the day after the election feeling relieved and a bit uncertain about his future. Earley reached for his journal and wrote: "God, having just shut this door on me, I'm excited about the door you will open for me, even though I have no idea what it is."

Two days later, Chuck Colson called.

Colson, once known as President Nixon's "hatchet man," was White House special counsel from 1969 to 1973. He spent two years in prison for obstructing justice during the Watergate scandal, and upon his release in 1976, devoted his life to evangelism and founded the Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Colson was looking for a successor.

It wasn't the first time he had approached Earley about taking over the ministry. Earley turned him down in 1998, shortly after being elected attorney general, saying he owed it to voters to serve his term. Colson continued his search, interviewing 25 candidates over the next few years but never finding his ideal.

"Mark Earley was the guy I wanted," Colson said in a recent interview, saying Earley "had good judgment and was a leader."

"You know, the Christian movement has a lot of similarities with politics. We needed someone with experience in mobilizing volunteers, and Mark had that," Colson added. "I think he was a divine match."

Earley, however, wasn't so sure. "I had to decide if this is what the Lord wanted me to do," he says. "I didn't know whether he wanted me to run for governor again or go back to practicing law or what."

The epiphany came the morning of Dec. 21, 2001 — about six weeks after the election. Earley, as usual, was reading from the Old Testament and the New Testament. In Exodus, he read how Moses murdered an Egyptian and escaped to the desert for 40 years. In Acts, he read how Paul abetted the stoning death of Stephen and persecuted Christians.

A thought dawned on him. "Both Moses and Paul were criminals, yet God chose them," Earley recalls. "God is in the business of choosing people others have written off. … And I said, 'I can devote my life to that.'"

Earley accepted the job, which pays $194,000 a year in salary and perks, and moved his family to Reston to be within walking distance of the ministry's headquarters.

So what's with the motorcycles?

Earley has been riding for almost 30 years. More importantly, many prisoners relate to biking. Earley's escorts come from all over the South as part of a ministry called Breaking the Cycle.

Earley doesn't rely solely on motorcycles to break the ice with inmates. His Palm Pilot is also bulging with evangelical organizations of weight lifters, athletes, felons, entertainers — you name it.

It is a day of reflection at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Virginia.

Earley and about two dozen volunteers are sitting at tables in the gym taking Christmas orders. The charity gifts are not for the 900 inmates at the facility, but for their children at home. It is a raw moment for many of the women, whose joy from doing something for the children is marred by their guilt at being away.

Diane Blackwell of Newport News tugs self-consciously at her light-green prison shirt as she scans the gift catalog. For her 13-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, she orders CD players and sneakers. But what should she get for Vivian, her baby?

"Her birthday is tomorrow," says Blackwell, 31, who's serving a five-year sentence for forgery and selling cocaine. "She'll be 3. Now that I'm here, I get to see her about once every three months."

Blackwell, who has spent the past decade in and out of prison, settles on a coloring kit and winter jacket. Then the tears come. "This is just so emotional," she sobs. "You just don't expect people to do nice things for you like this."

Earley puts his hands on her shoulders. "That's all right," he says. "I understand. I have six children of my own." They pray, and then tend to the next activity — filling out a Christmas card.

"Merry Christmas," Blackwell writes. "Mommy loves you."

Last year, Prison Fellowship Ministries distributed presents to more than 586,000 children of inmates in the United States under its Angel Tree Christmas program, according to Earley. The catalog orders from prisoners are parceled to about 15,000 volunteer churches. Each congregation is asked to buy and deliver gifts for at least 30 youngsters in its area.

Each summer, the ministry helps send about 10,000 children of inmates to a week at a Christian Bible camp near their homes and recruits adult volunteers to mentor them when they get home.

The scope of the ministry runs much deeper than children, however.

Each year, the organization sends troupes of preachers, evangelical entertainers and ex-cons to about 1,500 prisons. Leaders, including Earley, lobby Congress for money to make prisons safer and to protect inmates from rape. Every six weeks, an inspirational newspaper called the "Inside Journal" is published by the group and sent to prisoners at 2,200 facilities. Spouses of inmates are offered religious and marital counseling.

The nonprofit organization raises $46 million a year for its operating budget. Although the ministry has a presence in 109 nations, it spends about 90 percent of its money on programs in the United States.

The ministry's most fervent hope is to expand partnerships, now in four states, to run evangelical prisons.

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative was launched in Texas in 1997 with the goal of reducing recidivism through acceptance of "the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ." George W. Bush, then governor, agreed to provide a prison, guards and basic operating services at taxpayer expense. The ministry promised to pay for all prisoner programs and religious training.

Today, InnerChange prisons also exist in Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota, serving a total of about 1,200 inmates. Each of these states pays about a third of costs for programs, which is about $250,000 each. Contracts with InnerChange call for the ministry to pay for all religious guidance and for the states to pay for other programs such as vocational training and high-school equivalency courses.

Seven days a week, from pre-dawn prayer to lights out, the inmates follow a "Christ-based" agenda of Bible studies, counseling and job training. Although inmates of any faith are eligible for the program, the goal is to spread Christianity. Most of the felons join the program with two years left in their sentence and stay until their release. If they want to avoid being behind bars again, they are told, they must embrace the Bible as infallible.

Earley hopes to expand to five new states over the next two years and eventually spread across the nation. He has no immediate plan to approach Virginia officials, saying he wants to avoid any appearance of abusing his political connections.

Earley boasts that only 8 percent of the InnerChange graduates in Texas have returned to prison, compared with a 35 percent recidivism rate for the rest of the state. The figures came from a University of Pennsylvania study last year that was commissioned by the ministry.

Bush was so impressed that he invited Earley, Colson and five graduates of the Texas program to the White House in June 2003 and proclaimed the ministry a model for his efforts to allow faith-based groups to compete for public money to provide social services.

But several academics say the study was bogus and that there is no evidence religious programs reduce recidivism.

The study did not include inmates who dropped out or were kicked out of the program, or those who left prison but were arrested again before holding a job for six months. When those numbers are added, the InnerChange recidivism rate was 36.2 percent — slightly higher than Texas' statewide average.

"The claim of 8 percent is false and nothing more than faith-based fudging," says Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA. "InnerChange counted the winners and simply ignored the losers."

Earley defends the study. "I think the numbers are real," he says. "If you're doing a program, you can't be held to account for the people who come in one day and leave the next. We measure it by the people who complete the program, not by the people who have had exposure to it."

In Iowa, the InnerChange program faces a legal threat. Americans United for Separation of Church and State have filed suit, challenging the constitutionality of the government funding a religious prison. The suit, scheduled to be heard in April, says the InnerChange prison has more bathrooms, less crowding, better televisions and more liberal visitation policies than other state facilities — in effect, rewarding inmates for accepting Christianity.

Earley disputes any claim that InnerChange inmates get soft treatment, saying they spend their waking hours in structured activities and have almost no free time. "We think they actually give up a lot of privileges to be here," he says.

Is the program constitutional?

"We'll find out," Earley says.

Sunday morning at the Carol Vance Unit, just south of Houston, is a study in white.

The chapel for today's service, a large all-purpose room, has walls, ceiling tiles and linoleum floors that are bright white and gleam in the fluorescent lights and sunshine. The prisoners, 350 strong, enter in milk-colored uniforms and sit on folding chairs of the same hue. The ushers offer Styrofoam cups of water from white trays. It all seems pure and a bit surreal.

It's a special day because Earley is here to give the sermon. He visits about twice a year; most of his time is spent in Reston, running the ministry. He declines a front-row seat, preferring to sit in the middle among felons who say that the program has changed their lives.

They are men like John Wilson, 32, of Houston, who killed a rival in a 1998 fight over a woman and is due to leave prison next year. He hopes to land a job with a ministry and reconcile with a 13-year-old daughter.

"I'm going to change my friends when I get out," he says. "If I don't hang around with spiritually minded people, I'll be right back in here."

There's Eddie McNeill, 48, who started an investment company and bilked clients out of $1.25 million. He wants to go back into business or sales when he finishes his three-year sentence in 2006. "I'm not going to mess it up again," he says.

And there's Clarke Rodgers, 34, who has been in and out of prison much of his adult life on drug charges. Like McNeill and Wilson, he is also from Houston.

"I have no cravings inside these gates, but the problem will be when I get out," says Rodgers, who wants to work for Earley's ministry. "If I leave Jesus behind, I'll be back."

Most of the inmates marvel at the safety in their prison. "I can lay on my bunk here and sleep and not worry about anyone trying to get me," says Bryan Blue, 48, of Dallas, who is serving his third prison sentence for drug possession.

What threatens the inmates is life outside the walls. The ministry will try to help them by offering ongoing counseling and trying to find them jobs through its network of volunteer churches.

Earley, in his previous life as a politician, was skeptical that criminals could reform. He championed legislation in 1994 that abolished parole and lengthened mandatory sentences for felons. Earley now thinks the bill went too far.

"I would support the bill again, but with some refinements," he says. "I think I would figure out a way, at some point, to build in an opportunity for parole review. I've seen an awful lot of prisoners over the last two years that committed crimes in their late teens, early 20s, and now they're in their 40s or 50s and they shouldn't be in prison anymore. They are for all intents and purposes completely rehabilitated. What happened was a terrible act of misguided youth."

Dealing with the prisoners, one on one, provides a satisfaction that Earley says politics can't beat. "When you see a genuine change, that's extremely rewarding," he says.

So Earley prays among the felons this Sunday and sways to their prison chorus. There are readings of scriptures, and some of the inmates raise their hands in the air. The prisoners are exhorted to hug.

Leslie Kent, who works on the ministry's staff in Indiana, is making her first trip to the Texas prison and is overcome with emotion. "Your reputation and your love for Jesus are going all over the nation," she sobs.

Then Earley takes the pulpit — in a blue blazer, gray Dockers and a checkered shirt open at the collar — and recalls his own spiritual rebirth as a teenager and his decision to come to the ministry. He recounts the crimes of Moses and Paul.

"Isn't it just like God to take the things and the people that the rest of the world says have no more value, have no more hope, have no possibilities?" he asks in a calm but rising voice.

There is a murmur in the congregation; a voice replies, "That's true."

"What does it mean?" Earley entreats. "Biblical history tells us he's got just as much interest raising men and women up from places no one wants to go as he does from the richest neighborhoods of Houston or Dallas or Hollywood, Chicago or New York. We believe God is raising the next generation of leaders for his church from behind prison walls."

There is loud applause; the voices shout, "Uh-huh."

"This prison is not a staying place, it is a sending place."

And the voices respond.

"Amen." S

Warren Fiske is a writer with the Richmond bureau of the Virginian-Pilot.


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