Evanston churches reach out to offenders, offer second chance

Rachel Janik, Reporter

After retiring from his decades-long career as a pastor at Fisher Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in Evanston, the Rev. Hardist E. Lane continued his life’s work: helping reintegrate ex-offenders into the community.

“If a person’s paid his debt to society, you don’t want to rob him of a chance at a real life,” Lane said.

The rate at which ex-convicts re-offend upon release from prison, called recidivism, is startlingly high in Illinois. A 2011 Pew Research Center study found that more than half of Illinois prisoners violate parole or commit another crime within three years of being released.

Through offerings such as counseling and job training, Lane’s organization, the H.E. Lane Center for Positive Change, tries to fight poverty, homelessness and boredom, forces that might cause ex-offenders to recommit crimes or miss parole meetings. Much of the faith-based charity’s focus is on sustainable commitments, Lane said. Instead of quick fixes, the center works on life skills, careers and long-lasting relationships.

“We kind of monitor these fellows, and we have a lot of success,” Lane said.

Lane said the program typically gets an influx of letters and calls around the holidays, with offenders or their families hoping to move forward during a season when they spend time thinking about one another.

During the last year, Lane’s re-integration program has encouraged members of Evanston’s Reba Place Church, from which Lane rents space, to pursue similar efforts.

Congregation member Brenda Overton said she volunteers for the church’s newly formed initiative to provide counsel and support for those incarcerated or recently released, specifically children whose parents are incarcerated or recently released.

“What we’re trying to do is use a whole family approach,” Overton said.

The church holds game nights and potlucks that Overton said take stress off already strained families and offer children friends who have a shared experience. In the fall, the church group hosted trips to apple orchards and hayrides.

“It’s fun for the children, and it gives them a place to belong,” she said. “They have that common denominator, and they feel very free to be who they are.”

Members are hopeful about the program’s potential, and are looking into expanding with some additional support from the city, Overton said.

Lane, on the other hand, said his organization has received little help from the city and none from the state. Ordinances to financially back Lane’s program failed to garner support, he said. To raise funds, Lane’s center organizes fundraisers with other area churches, including one on Saturday, when North Shore pastors will sing and worship in Evanston’s Unitarian church.

“Our only support is from the community, from the people that believe in what we’re doing,” Lane said.

Some of the young men Lane’s center counseled “have gone on to great things,” Lane said. Although at times incredibly trying, the work Lane has done with the program has given him some of the most rewarding and humbling experiences of his life, he said.

“The people that come to us, they are ready to change, but they need us to lift them up, show them something positive,” Lane said. “They need more hope than help.”