If you hadn’t just walked through two sliding barbed wire gates, or heard the thunderous thud of a metal door at your back, you would think you had just walked into an unusually clean bus station.
Vending machines line the outer walls, as a microwave warms up pre-packaged burgers. Perpendicular seating areas lend a semblance of privacy for chatting friends and families. Children play and laugh with dads. Moms cuddle babies. Grandparents look tired, but happy to see their kin.
Welcome to Riverbend Maximum Security Institution on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. Surrounded by the pastoral beauty Middle Tennessee is known for, the concrete compound stands as a monument to paradox. It holds the darkest of stories and the brightest of hopes. It houses inmates waiting on death row and hosts their executions. It employs low security inmates to help with everyday functions, while they wait for parole.
Getting through security to visitation can be nerve-wracking. Your personal property, identification, attire, paperwork, screening—all have to comply with rules or you are denied entrance. Something always goes wrong. The security guards walk the line between serious formality and having a little compassion. After a dozen or so visits, you have a common bond with them. The whole process feels normal.
Among the Saturday visitation crowd, Roger Johnson and Faye Parker catch up in a corner. They talk about life and about Roger’s work in prison, as an inmate helping inmates be successful upon release. Roger is the founder of God’s Love First, the only known inmate-driven nonprofit registered in Tennessee. Faye is the chief financial officer.
God’s Love First has the ambitious goal of eliminating recidivism statewide, in order to reunite families and reduce crime. In Tennessee, about half of those released end up back behind bars. Remarkably, the inmates who have graduated from God’s Love First programs, at Riverbend and through correspondence courses across the state, have a recidivism rate of less than one percent.
Roger’s vision, leadership, and continuous effort to support successful re-entry are all the more notable because he is serving a life sentence.
Born on December 2, 1970 in Columbia, Tennessee, Roger grew up in a difficult homelife, abused by the rivalry and rejection of his mother’s three children from a previous marriage. Though his parents tried to treat all the children the same, the sibling turmoil only intensified over time. The half-siblings harbored anger, resentment, and jealousy of Roger and his brother, who was killed in a mysterious and brutal car incident.
Roger had early brushes with Christianity through his grandmother and great grandmother. The singing and people that surrounded him then are his fondest childhood memories. At 12, after his mother’s baptism, Roger confessed Jesus Christ as the Son of the living God.
But the seed in Roger’s heart was too easily choked. With his apathy to church and his long-simmering bitterness and anger, Roger turned his back on God and turned to the streets for power and acceptance.
The darkness in his life grew. When he was 23, an estranged girlfriend told him she was pregnant. In a fit of rage he killed her. Roger pled guilty and was sentenced to life. He has now passed the milestone of living more years in prison than in freedom. That is, if you look at external circumstances.
Crushed after losing an appeal In 2005, Roger had to come to grips with his life sentence. It was during this time that God started working in his soul, and he perceived God’s unquestionable guidance to change. The more he listened and obeyed, the more God healed the inner places that had been scorned, wounded, abandoned, and betrayed. God channeled Roger’s remorse into service that would heal other lives through God’s Love First.
Ask prison ministry volunteers what draws them to the work, and most will reply that God makes it impossible not to. They witness the miraculous rebirth God works in mortally broken spirits. They experience the contagious joy of inmates who know how much Jesus went through to save them. They know Jesus can rescue a person from any situation. All of this is true about Roger.
Friends, family, and Riverbend ministry volunteers, all hope and pray for Roger’s release and the expansion of his ministry. In the meantime, Roger assures them that he has never been so free in his life. He experiences a spiritual freedom that cannot be lost or taken away.
By Callie Grant, God’s Love First volunteer and the sister of a God’s Love First member who assists the Riverbend chaplain alongside Roger.
“My mission has been to build an organization of changed men and women who are on a personal journey of daily spiritual growth, and who also want to give of themselves by donating their time and skill set to help others.”Roger Johnson