- Associated Press - Saturday, December 24, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The walls of New Canaan International Church could not contain the joyful noise of congregants worshipping last Sunday after the baptism of several Henrico County Jail inmates.

The crashing of cymbals, clapping and singing drifted out of the single-story church on Byron Street in eastern Henrico, where about two dozen inmates travel weekly for lessons on fatherhood and motherhood.

This is no megachurch. The Rev. Owen C. Cardwell Jr. left that life behind decades ago.

He founded New Canaan 22 years ago and has made outreach to incarcerated people and their families a cornerstone of its ministry.

The building may be modest but its people are mighty, which is the way it should be, said Cardwell, 69, a civil rights and social justice activist.

“I did not want to do things the traditional way,” he said. “It took me a little while to figure out what that meant, but I have.”

Among the dozens of programs and projects that he and the church have undertaken is a partnership with Henrico Sheriff Mike Wade that allows county jail inmates to come to the church on Sundays.

The inmates come for classes, but the relationship Cardwell and his congregation build with them transcends programming, Wade said.

“A majority of these people who come to the church are heroin addicts in recovery,” Wade said. “To have these people at the church wrap their arms around them and support them means the world.”

It’s a blessing for parishioners, too, congregant Starlette Edmonds said.

“This is what we as a church are here for,” Edmonds said. “We are here to heal the brokenhearted; to heal people’s lives; to love.”

Wade said families are reuniting as a result of the work Cardwell and his church are doing. Qualifying inmates volunteer to participate in the classes, and the church provides transportation, Wade said.

“They are going the extra mile to support these people,” he said. “It’s not just classes, it’s community.”

Cardwell said community and family connections are what’s missing in the lives of many people who end up in the motherhood and fatherhood classes - but they are not alone.

“You look at the direction of everything - even architecture - why did front porches start disappearing?” Cardwell said. “The result is these isolated fortresses where we live next door to people and don’t know a thing about them.”

That was not the case in Cardwell’s Lynchburg, where he was one of two African-American students to integrate E.C. Glass High School in 1962.

He later served in the Army and has received two master’s degrees and a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies from Union Institute and University in Cincinnati, where he specialized in the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Cardwell names as his role models his father; King; and veteran civil rights activist Virgil Wood, who was a contemporary of King’s.

He said he was fortunate to have strong mentors and has spent decades trying to pay that forward with mentorship programs across central Virginia.

“We want to empower people to take responsibility for their own lives; and some people don’t know better, because there was no one around to teach them better,” he said.

“If they aren’t getting their example from family, neighborhood or the church, where are they getting it? Most likely the streets, or pop culture.”

He believes in change and said he has seen it work in the lives of others he has counseled over the years.

“It is a process, and you have to ask the right questions,” Cardwell said. “It is not within our innate nature to want to change unless we have to.”

When someone is ready to dig deep and begin that work, they also need to know they aren’t alone, Wade said. That’s where the church becomes involved.

“I believe the difference he is making is much greater than the individual participant, but it touches the church community and the metro area where these participants live and work,” Wade said.

“It is a great example of how a small church can make a great difference.”


Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

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