Change often starts with just one.
At Helenwood Baptist Church, change started with one lady who stood up and said, “Can we sit together?”
The backstory: Through a grant-funded S.T.A.N.D. program, some non-violent inmates at the Scott County Jail are eligible for release on weekdays to work in local factories. Many of them are people who have struggled with drug addiction. As part of the program, S.T.A.N.D.’s peer recovery specialist, Randy Byrge, meets with the inmates for group sessions — “I’ve lived in a cell,” he explained. “I just want to let them see that they don’t have to go back to that.”
Early on in the program, Dave Barnhouse — pastor at Helenwood Baptist — contacted Byrge.
“He said, ‘Now Randy, let me get this straight,’” Byrge said. “‘I’ve heard your story. They let you come down to the jail and get these men?’ He said, ‘Randy, that’s crazy.’ And I said, ‘Yes it is. (But) it’s because they trust me.’”
Barnhouse asked Byrge if there was a chance of getting the group of inmates together at the church and feeding them.
“That’s all he wanted to do — feed them and love on them,” Byrge said.
The answer was yes. It was arranged, and the first group of men showed up at the church. The meal wasn’t simple hot dogs and hamburgers. It was a full-fledged meal. “Helenwood Baptist Church has the best fried fish I believe I’ve ever had anywhere,” Byrge said.
But at the first meeting, there was apprehension. Call it shyness. The men — the inmates from the jail — sat together in their group, and the members of the church sat together in a different group.
“We were in a room together, but we weren’t meeting together,” Byrge said.
Then, one person stepped forward.
“A little old lady stood up and she said, ‘Can the men separate so we can sit together?’” Byrge said.
That was the start of something.
“I watched men — rough men — cry, because people wanted to be around them,” Byrge said.
The men separated, and the church people sat with the inmates, and “we had a great time,” Byrge said. “We weren’t just hanging out. There were relationships mended. There were family members who thought their kids were the only bad kids. There were men who thought they could never step foot inside a church. And all that just kinda flew out the window.”
Byrge said that Barnhouse and Helenwood Baptist “knocked it out of the park for us.” What’s more, it didn’t just help the men from the jail. It was mutually beneficial. “He said it was a big help to his church,” Byrge said.
Then Covid-19 happened, and the men stopped being released from the jail.
“Bro. Dave would ask me all the time, ‘Randy when can we get the men back?’ And I’d say, ‘it’s not looking good,’” Byrge said. “He’d said, ‘Well just bring me some people we can love on.’
“He said, ‘I don’t care who they are, where they come from, or where they go to church,’” Byrge added. “‘Just bring them here so we can worship together.’”
That led to the first Connected In Christ meeting, which took place at Helenwood Baptist recently. The name comes from the one thing that Byrge said connects all of us, regardless of our background or status.
The first Connected In Christ meeting saw about 50 people show up, between the members of Helenwood Baptist Church who were on hand and members of the local recovery group who are overcoming drug addiction and their families.
After a fish supper, there was singing and preaching and fellowship, and Byrge said it turned out to be a great meeting.
“There was one man who was struggling with a lot of different things, and when everybody else left he came back and he said, ‘Randy, I think I could belong to that church,’” Byrge said. “That’s the thing. He felt connection in something. I think it was the connection of that lady saying, ‘We want to sit with you.’ Not just in the same room, but they wanted to get to know each other.
“I think that’s how we solve a lot of this (drug addiction),” Byrge said. “By just sitting in a room and listening to stories. I think if we just do that enough, even if you have that whole meeting so that just one person can say, ‘Hey, that helped me,’ is that not worth it? All it takes is to sit in a room together. Once you hear the stories and get to know each other, you realize that we’ve all got things we’re ashamed of or that we’re messed up. Together, we can get through that.”
That’s the secret, Byrge said: Together. What started with Helenwood Baptist Church he hopes will spread throughout Scott County’s faith-based community.
Byrge said there’s a hunger in Scott County to create a difference, to be a part of the solution. He points to the program where the inmates were taken to S.T.A.N.D.’s Oneida office one night a week before Covid-19 interrupted things. Early on, the program’s executive director, Trent Coffey, said that he was not going to treat the men any differently than he treated his own board of directors. If they were going to meet in his building, they were going to be fed. Byrge suggested home-cooked meals.
“I thought a meal would go a long way with these men,” he said. So, he turned to Facebook and asked for help. He shared his idea: that men from the jail be served a home-cooked meal once a week. Then the responses poured in.
“They never knew who they were gonna feed. They only knew how many men it was gonna be,” he said. “And I wound up being booked for six months. We did it one night a week, and we were booked for six months.”
Byrge sees opportunity for Scott County’s churches to get on board — not individually, but together as one, regardless of denomination or location — and help create change.
“There’s not one church in this community that I think could do it on its own,” he said. “It’s a load to carry. But I think if we could bring all the churches together, if we could get them all in a room and just let them listen to some of these stories, getting them on board I don’t think would be a problem. The problem is getting them to sit in a room together with people they might not agree with 100% and just get them to listen and say, “hey, maybe I can do something.’”
The stubbornness, the reluctance, isn’t because anyone is wrong, Byrge said. Rather, he said, it’s because “addiction is scary, and it’s hard.”
“People have been affected by addiction in many ways,” Byrge said. “There’s people who have been robbed from, stolen from. People have broken into their places of business. I get it. I’ve seen it all. But we’ve learned that putting them in jail and locking them up, I don’t care for how long, that does not fix anything. All they learn is new connections, new places to get drugs.
“I watched people loving on me change my life,” he said, “and people loving on other people change other people’s lives.”