Criminal Justice Ministry’s refusal to give up on people pays off
Jerome Arnold, right, checked in with his client, Phillip Melton, who said of his case manager, “He always has been there for me.” The two talk on the phone daily and meet up at least once a week. Jerome Arnold, who started as a case manager with Criminal Justice Ministry in January, received help from the ministry after his release from prison and pledged to one day return and help other veterans.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston
At an apartment in south St. Louis, Jerome Arnold greeted Phillip Melton as if they were old friends. But they’d only met a month earlier, after Melton had been released from prison.
Melton told Arnold that the move was simple, he’d unpacked and even lost weight. Most importantly, he hadn’t had an alcoholic drink since he left prison.
“Way to go,” Arnold praised Melton, referring to him as, “a good man, a good person, not a hassle.”
As a case manager with the Criminal Justice Ministry of St. Louis (CJM), Arnold checks up on Melton and assists him and other men in the Rent to Release housing program for military veterans. Arnold empathizes with the clients — in 2012 he was homeless, on probation on a drug conviction, struggling with addiction and probably on his way back to prison when he got help from the ministry.
“CJM literally changed my life,” Arnold said. “I was a convicted felon. CJM gave me a second chance to get my life together.”
Arnold was checking fire extinguishers and smoke detectors in CJM-rented apartments March 1 when he met with Melton. “He’s been there for me,” Melton said. “If I have issues, I call.”
When Arnold reminded Melton not to make “stupid decisions,” the fellow Army vet nodded, adding that “I’ve made my share of them.” Arnold patted him on the back, told him how proud he was of him and encouraged him to persevere.
Arnold’s work with the Criminal Justice Ministry is “a dream come true,” he said.
He had struggled with addiction for 20 years and “everybody gave up on me,” he said. But he met with Sarah Pride, previously with the Criminal Justice Ministry, who showed confidence in his recovery. “She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Arnold said. “That hadn’t happened in a long time.”
Pride told him she’d help if he got treatment and stopped using drugs. “I took a step of faith and believed in her,” he said, noting that previously he had tried to change on his own, often afraid to ask for help.
Arnold, now 56, entered a treatment program, lived in transitional housing for a couple months and then entered the Criminal Justice Ministry program. He had two case managers, including Aaron Laxton, who now is director of community relations. “He inspired me to do what I do. He allowed me to become who I am,” Arnold said.
(Sarah Pride) saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. That hadn’t happened in a long time.
Laxton helped Arnold stay off drugs and follow rules. CJM offered him a chance to take care of all of his problems at once — legal, addiction, housing.
Laxton gives Arnold the credit for his achievements. “He always had a vision of what he wanted to do if given the opportunity,” Laxton said. “It made it easy for me as a case manager. I walked alongside him, but he did the heavy lifting.”
His former client was persistent in seeking a staff position at the ministry, Laxton recalled. Once CJM expanded, “he was one of the first people I thought of,” Laxton said. “We believe it was kind of Divine intervention.”
Arnold developed attainable short-term, mid-term and long-term goals, and a CJM staff member reviewed those with him quarterly. The ministry “taught me to believe in myself and don’t quit,” Arnold said.
Other men whom he met in the program also are now living independently, employed, drug- and alcohol-free and have no negative interactions with the law. He stopped associating with people who use drugs or break the law and is active in a 12-step program.
Arnold said it was hard to make new friends and to trust people. Eventually he got together with other men in the program, having fun without drugs or alcohol. Arnold also went to college, got an associate’s degree in human services, a certificate in addiction study and learned how to handle issues specific to veterans such as post-traumatic stress. Before joining the staff of the Criminal Justice Ministry, he worked as an addiction counselor. He also worked rehabbing homes, including his home. He enjoys travel — something he didn’t do previously — and spending time with his two dogs.
Laxton relates the Criminal Justice Ministry’s work to the Gospel about the Prodigal son. “When you honor the worth of the person, that person begins to heal and becomes the person they’re truly meant to be. Jerome is the best example of that.”
CJM gives its clients hope by treating them with dignity, self-respect and worth, Laxton said. “Society has given up hope on them and oftentimes they’ve given up hope in themselves,” he said.
Arnold works with 15 veterans now, helping them on their bigger issues and little things such as saving money. “I get to give back what CJM gave me,” he said. “I try to encourage them, let them know I believe in them, that they can become independent. I’ve been through what they’ve been through.”
He also lets them know that the people who help fund the ministry, including the Archdiocese of St. Louis through the Annual Catholic Appeal, also believe in them. He urges clients to be accountable. “That’s what these guys need to learn. If you’re accountable, you become responsible. If you’re responsible, you become productive, not just in your own life but in society.”