Redemption on Elmwood

Loka Ashwood

Redemption on Elmwood

Evanston ministry’s ‘Fresh Start’ program works to provide support for released offenders

By Loka Ashwood

The Daily Northwestern

Nestled among neatly trimmed Evanston yards stands a church for the poor, forgotten and lost. Fisher Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, 944 Elmwood Ave., reaches out to ex-convicts through Fresh Start, a program designed to integrate former offenders back into the community through religious counseling.

“Many of the persons that come in here through our system have been in prison since they were young,” said the Rev. Hardist E. Lane. “They didn’t know anything about the good life. Now we have them working in various places, buying automobiles, marrying, with families now.”

Every Friday night, Lane gathers with members of his church and ex-convicts looking to start a new life.

After an opening prayer Friday, counselor Louella Pickett began the weekly meeting by asking newcomer Howard Wheston to read a verse from the Bible.

“No,” said 48-year-old Wheston. “I can’t read. I can’t read that well.”

Jimmy Riddle, a 43-year-old Evanston resident sitting nearby Wheston, offered to read the verse from Romans glorifying humans as “instruments of righteousness unto God.” Without the Bible, becoming clean for God would have been impossible, Riddle said.

“This is your strength here, this your everything,” Riddle said, gripping the Bible. “This is what keeps me sustained.”

Riddle came to Fisher Memorial in 1999 after spending half of his life in prison, intending to shake the habits that had begun ruling his life.

“When I was downstate, I was part of the other world using on a daily basis — on a 24/7 run, man — cocaine, heroin, you name it,” Riddle said. “I thought it was something I was able to control. It got beyond my grasp and caused me to do things I wouldn’t normally do.”

After his fifth time in prisons including Joliet, Menard, Pontiac and Lincoln, Riddle decided to find a job and start over.

Riddle met with his probation officer, and he received possible employment numbers and an extra number the officer had put three checks beside. After a discouraging series of phone calls, Riddle called the final, extra number: Fisher Memorial Zion Church.

“When I got to this church, they opened their arms to me. They accepted me,” Riddle said.

Riddle has attended Fisher Memorial for five years and now provides encouragement for those new to Fresh Start. In return Riddle basks in the company and support of those fellow members who have battled prison and drug use. But when not with those who share his struggles, Riddle turns to God.

“I pray, I pray to God everyday, ” Riddle said falling to his knees. “You lookin’ at a miracle. If only people knew what I had to go through and where I’ve been.”

John Williams, a 63-year-old Evanston resident, directs Fisher Memorial’s First Base program for the homeless, as well as the Evanston Community Rehab Committee for Affordable Housing.

But Williams particularly is proud of Fresh Start.

“We believe that we are the most successful program in the city in Evanston,” Williams said. “I don’t know of any other program that has an ex-offender program that does what we do in the city of Evanston.”

Lane, who has been pastor at Zion for 36 years, leads general services Sunday mornings, bible study on Wednesday nights and and recently celebrated annual revival services from May 19-21.

Setting a good example through the church and showing people there is a better way, Lane said, provides a solution to crime and drugs.

“God didn’t mean for them to be locked up like animals,” Lane said. “They just needed a little focusing.”