We seek to reunite families and communities across Tennessee through proven pathways for re-entry that eradicate recidivism and reduce crime.
The personal development programs of God’s Love First are designed to help incarcerated men and women achieve a healthy inner transformation and learn valuable life skills for a successful, sustaining transition to freedom.
Frances Parker & Roger Johnson
The idea for God’s Love First was sparked in a 2008 conversation between current Executive Director Roger Johnson and Chief Financial Officer Frances Parker. They were discussing the healing in Roger’s own life and his overwhelming desire to help others.
Roger had experienced firsthand how families and communities can be torn apart by crime. While serving life in prison, Roger attended a theotherapy workshop that opened his eyes to God’s love and a new-found potential within him. Theotherapy, a ministry model developed in the early 1960s by psychologist and theologian Dr. Mario Rivera, is based on counseling, emotional healing, and biblical principles.
When Roger was transferred to Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, he reached out to The Theotherapy Project founder Mark West about bringing the program there. The highly effective method with a proven track record tackles an extensive list of complex topics:
The Negative, Active Past; Anger; Rejection, Forgiveness; Existential Guilt; Neurotic Guilt; Anxiety; Fear; Grief; Self Esteem and Masks; Communication; Marriage; Family Systems; Sexuality; Divorce; Dismantling Strongholds; Beyond Healing to Maturity; and Growth Markers.
The Theotherapy Project agreed to partner with Roger, who developed a God’s Love First program proposal that was approved by Riverbend’s chaplain. Roger then started promoting it among his fellow residents to generate interest.
“Our first class had eight people in it, and I was one of them,” Roger said. “From there, I just simply stayed the course and let God take care of the rest.” In the second class, the number of participants doubled. Roger then began classes to train multipliers, other facilitators and leaders who helped the program grow. Their contagious enthusiasm and positivity reaped successful outcomes.
“God’s Love First is more than a phrase,” said leader Jimmy Morales. “We want to lift each man up and show them that we care about and love each one of them, but we ultimately put God’s love first. They need to be willing to let go and let God begin the healing they have longed for.”
Hoping for the day when he would be granted parole or clemency, Roger developed a business plan and wrote the by-laws he would need to register God’s Love First as a nonprofit. But his mentor and dear friend, Clint Boyd, Jr. of Higher-Ground Training, convinced him to take his vision to the next level right when and where he was.
“Mr. Boyd said, ‘Why wait?’ So, I looked into it and discovered a way it could be done. After much prayer, God gave me the greenlight to proceed,” Roger recalled.
In 2013, God’s Love First became the first inmate-developed nonprofit formally registered in the State of Tennessee, bringing with it a novel approach: inmates helping inmates by partnering with external organizations.
The new dual prison- and community-based nonprofit went to work on the biggest challenges facing new and long-time inmates alike.
New inmates struggling to adapt to the environment experience social isolation, loss of identity, and social instability. All inmates struggle with depression, anxiety, and defeat. To get them on a supportive pathway, God’s Love First continued to grow through Theotherapy sessions, mentoring programs, financial stability classes, parole and transition workshops, and more.
The offerings have benefitted hundreds of individuals at Riverbend, as well as men and women across the state through correspondence courses. Graduates of God’s Love First programs who have healed and want to help others may become stakeholders as members.
In addition to its on-site programs, God’s Love First works with community partners to provide funding, basic necessities, and external connections for those preparing to re-enter the community. Such holistic support—spiritual, emotional, psychological, logistical, and practical—dramatically improves the lives of program participants.
“This ministry has given us a remarkable model that has tackled some of the toughest issues that were holding back a lot of men and women,” said God’s Love First participant Richard Smith.
In Tennessee, which has a lower recidivism rate than most states, about half of those released end up back in the criminal justice system. The recidivism rate of God’s Love First program graduates is less than one percent over the past six years combined.
As a dual prison- and community-based Christian organization, God’s Love First continues to partner with a variety of nonprofits, ministries, businesses, and individuals to advance its founding mission and expand upon it as needed.
In 2019, God’s Love First explored ways to help tackle the toughest issues facing prison populations today: addiction, gang violence, and financial loss. Tennessee’s opioid crisis has affected prisons all across the United States, and as a result they are experiencing significant increases across-the-board in thefts, robbery, assaults, and other crimes.
To turn the lives around and improve the environment, God’s Love First submitted a proposal to establish a residential Career Development and Detox Program in a special unit inside the prison and staffed by experienced inmates.
“With the special Career Development and Detox unit, we would provide a safe place for program participants to be restored physically, mentally, and spiritually,” Roger said, “while building a life beneficial to the public and common good of self, family, and community.”
The on-site unit would employ proven programs and practices at a considerable fraction of the cost to the State. What’s more, individual lives would be transformed. Prison life would improve for inmates and employees, reducing bullying, illegal drug distribution and use, and extortion. Participants will be much more likely to have a successful re-entry. And drug-related crimes in communities would go down.
Because of their track record, Roger and his colleagues have confidence the new program would be a game-changer. “The fruit of our labor gives me hope,” Roger reflected. “The fruit of our labor is seeing evidence of healing in others’ lives.”
In 2020, God’s Love First will begin a broader fund-raising effort in order to start new programs, scale their existing ones, and offer more support to those re-entering society. The organization is filing for IRS 501(c)3 status and launching an effort for greater awareness about its successful outcomes, in hopes of helping other prison organizations in other states duplicate their model.
In the future, Roger envisions “communities of people who have each other’s best interest at heart. I would like God’s Love First to be a one-stop-shop for all transitional needs in Tennessee for all citizens.”
To become a partner, make an in-kind or financial contribution, or become a volunteer, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org or God’s Love First, Inc., P.O. Box 281111, Nashville, TN 37228.