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From left, TaWanda Johnson, a case manager with Criminal Justice Ministry, Andy Bullard, who was recently released from prison, and Kelly Bulanda, a volunteer with Criminal Justice Ministry, prayed before a meal May 23 at Andy’s home in St. Louis.
From left, TaWanda Johnson, a case manager with Criminal Justice Ministry, Andy Bullard, who was recently released from prison, and Kelly Bulanda, a volunteer with Criminal Justice Ministry, prayed before a meal May 23 at Andy’s home in St. Louis.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand

Criminal Justice Ministry’s Mission Welcome Home lays out the welcome mat for those recently released from prison

Agency receives support from the Annual Catholic Appeal

Andy Bullard
Not long after being released from prison, Andy Bullard got to eat one of his favorite meals — pasta.

On a spring afternoon, his case manager with Criminal Justice Ministry (CJM), TaWanda Johnson, and volunteer Kelly Bulanda visited his apartment with an oversized bag of samplings from Olive Garden.

Sitting around a folding table set up in Andy’s living room, the three shared a meal and chatted about how he’s been adjusting to life after prison. “I’m looking forward to getting a job and hopefully save up enough to buy a few acres of land,” Andy said.

“You just need one yes,” TaWanda said about his job search.

Their shared meal is part of Mission Welcome Home, a volunteer-driven effort of Criminal Justice Ministry that includes cleaning and furnishing housing for recently released prisoners. Volunteers also make and share meals with new clients.

The Criminal Justice Ministry’s mission is to improve communities by supporting and empowering people impacted by incarceration. The nonprofit organization receives funding from the Annual Catholic Appeal.

Its reentry housing programs provide ongoing supportive housing and wraparound services. Ministry volunteers also visit various prisons and jails in the archdiocese, where they teach classes and assist with family members’ visits.

The Let’s Start program for women and their families merged with the Criminal Justice Ministry several years ago and includes various support groups for women, substance abuse case management and visits to women’s correctional facilities in Vandalia and Chillicothe, Missouri.

The First Services program helps men and women recently released from prison with IDs, food, bus passes, clothing and hygiene and other basic items.

Andy Bullard smiled toward Kelly Bulanda, a volunteer with Criminal Justice Ministry, during a meal May 23 at Bullard’s home in St. Louis. Andy was released from prison earlier this year and is a client of CJM.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand
Criminal Justice Ministry executive director Tom Casey said Annual Catholic Appeal funding is essential because it provides backing for efforts that are hard to fund through other sources. CJM hired Lyla Novakowski in the fall of 2022 as volunteer and ministry coordinator, a new position made possible in part because of ACA funding.

“With any of the spiritual ministry work, we have to look for alternatives,” Tom said. “So that’s where ACA helps fill the gap.”

Mission Welcome Home has resonated well with volunteers and clients, said Lyla. There currently are about 30 highly active volunteers who assist in cleaning and staging apartments to prepare for incoming clients. “It’s a spiritual mission, a mission of love,” she said. “They just go above and beyond in this mission. It’s really powerful.”

The meals that volunteers bring to clients are accompanied by fellowship, an intentional part of the ministry. “I find out we have a lot in common when we just sit down and have a meal and talk,” said Kelly, a member of Ascension Parish in Chesterfield who has brought meals to several Criminal Justice Ministry clients.

A group of volunteers from St. Alban Roe Parish in Wildwood are among the volunteers who help clean apartment units in preparation for the next clients who will live there. Early on a Saturday morning, the group cleaned a unit at a complex in south St. Louis, while Lyla asked them to examine the furniture and small appliances to see if anything needed to be replaced.

“Ask yourself: Would you sit on it?” she said as they swept the floor, scrubbed baseboards and cleaned the windows in the living room.

Mary Lee Sander, who diligently scrubbed the floor and walls of the apartment bathroom, said the Criminal Justice Ministry resonates with her, because “people deserve a second chance. They deserve a clean home to walk into. I believe God calls us to give people second chances.”

The passage from the Gospel of Matthew (25:36-40) is a reminder of why Jan Commens volunteers with Criminal Justice Ministry. “Anybody can make a mistake, and I believe we need to help anyone who is trying to better their life.”

Whether it’s cleaning an apartment, making a meal or visiting someone in prison, the volunteers are fulfilling a calling, Lyla said. “Everybody has these beautiful spiritual gifts, and when we use them to serve this population, I truly believe that is when we are visiting with Christ.”

Criminal Justice Ministry

The Criminal Justice Ministry’s mission is to improve communities by supporting and empowering people impacted by incarceration. Its reentry housing programs provide ongoing supportive housing and wraparound services.

A volunteer network provides services to people who are currently incarcerated and those who have recently been released. For more information on the agency and its programs, as well as volunteer opportunities, visit www.cjmstlouis.org.

Restorative justice

The U.S. bishops have consistently called for restorative justice. In “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” the bishops wrote that “just as God never abandons us, so too we must be in covenant with one another. We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation and return or reintegration of all into the community.”

The bishops have repeatedly voiced support for legislation that would make improvements to the U.S. criminal justice system, including amending the federal criminal code to establish partnerships between prisons and faith- or community-based nonprofit organizations to conduct activities to reduce recidivism. The bishops also have voiced support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make reforms to mandatory minimum sentences by expanding current judicial sentencing options related to nonviolent drug offenses.

It’s our duty to do everything possible to offer to those who commit crimes a way of redeeming themselves and making a positive return to society, St. John Paul II has said.

“We are still a long way from the time when our conscience can be certain of having done everything possible to prevent crime and to control it effectively so that it no longer does harm and, at the same time, to offer to those who commit crimes a way of redeeming themselves and making a positive return to society,” he said. “If all those in some way involved in the problem tried to … develop this line of thought, perhaps humanity as a whole could take a great step forward in creating a more serene and peaceful society.”

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