HIGH POINT, N.C.-- Every Monday evening, the doors of the church are open at Second Chance Community Church in Hith Point.
The pastor offers something a lot of people fresh out of prison may have never had: a listening ear.
“I was incarcerated for a string of armed robberies back in 1992, and I was sentenced to 3 life sentences and 100 years as a habitual felon,” Johnny Rivers said.
Twenty-six years later, Johnny Rivers was paroled in 2018.
“My biggest challenges, I think, were readjusting to this new society,” Rivers said. “The youth of today were not like the youth 26 years ago. And having to deal with the technology part of cell phones, credit cards and debit cards.”
In his first few months out, Rivers had a heart attack, his apartment building burned down and then he lost his job.
“I had all these obstacles that I had to overcome. But in spite of everything, God was still faithful,” Rivers said.
He says Yokefellow Prison Ministry helped keep him straight.
For more than 50 years, Yokefellow volunteers have developed relationships with people in prison intended to help them transition out. This is the first time it's been done on the outside.
“I was incarcerated at one time, and I was a part of Yokefellow ministry,” said organizer Pastor Kelvin Sellers. “One of the things that I found when I was inside was a lot of people that I saw get out would come back. And I said it's something wrong with this picture.”
Pastor Sellers says he wanted to create a space for people to come after being released where they could talk openly about life issues, jobs and whatever they want.
He served six years in prison. He and Johnny Rivers were inside together.
“During our incarceration, we talked a lot, and I told him that my passion was to get out and do outreach ministry. I have a passion to help rebuild the communities that I helped destroy,” Rivers said.
According to NC Second Chance Alliance, 40% go back within three years of being released. Pastor Sellers says if you get people working after prison, fewer will return. So he connects with people in the area who hire ex-felons.
Most of the volunteers have either been in prison or battled some addiction. They bring guys in from work camps. They pick people up from local shelters. The room is a no-judgment zone.
“I was in a coffee shop this morning, and the girl smiled at me when she gave me my change,” Jeffrey Edwards said during a recent session. “That kind of shell-shocked me because I`m not accustomed to interacting with females in a business transaction. I felt like a 13-year old on his first date or something. It was enough that I was lost.”
During the same session, Johnny Rivers shared the difficulty of not being able to have a conversation with his children when he got out.
“I visited them while I was incarcerated, but sometimes it was like talking to strangers," Rivers said.
Pastor Sellers knows the challenges are great, but he says a little hope can go a long way.
“For the city of High Point with the crime the way it is, I have a compassion for young men and young women to not commit crimes and go to jail. And for the ones who come here on Monday night for Yokefellow, my passion for them is to get out of prison or jail and stay out. It can be done," Sellers said.
Yokefellow meets every Monday evening from 7-8:30 p.m. at Second Chance Community Church in High Point.