- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

OLD LYME, Conn. (AP) - Inside Gree-C-Guys Lube and Tires on Halls Road, Cedric Smith works on a sermon, writing in his notebook and poring over the Bible.

On the sunny December morning, light streams in from the windows of the shop’s garage doors. Tires are stacked against the wall, and a TV screen flickers with a daytime show. A framed photograph of his family hangs on the wall behind him, along with a board advertising the shop’s services.

On his drive to Old Lyme earlier that morning, Smith had thought of a theme for the Sunday sermon he would deliver at the church he leads in New Haven, and he couldn’t wait to get to work.

“We have to want to help someone else and not expect anything from it,” he says, reflecting on the message of the sermon, “How to Be Used by God.”

A woman enters the tire and lube shop.

“How can I help you, young lady?” Smith asks cheerfully.

She had gotten a flat tire while driving to a meeting. Smith patches the tire, showing her the screw that had caused the problem.

“That was easy,” she says with relief.

Smith, 44, manages the tire and lube shop in Old Lyme, serves as a pastor at Mennonite Bible Fellowship Church, and spends time with his wife and five children, aged 9 to 24, at his New Haven home.

But when he was much younger, Smith’s life could have gone in other directions: an honor roll student, he nevertheless spent years dealing drugs and hustling on the streets of New Haven.

From a “lifetime of failure” and time in prison, Smith said, he has learned how to live. He said he wants others to avoid the same trap he fell into and to realize they can learn from the mistakes of their past.

Smith was raised between his Louisiana Baptist pastor and his grandmother in New Haven; he was sent to his father when he got into trouble.

But when he was a teenager, Smith was introduced by an uncle to a street “clique” in New Haven and eventually began running it. He went in and out of prison on drug and gun charges.

In 2000, while in his late 20s, Smith was caught trafficking drugs between New York and Connecticut and landed in Wyoming Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in upstate New York.

After serving four-and-a-half years, he was extradited to Connecticut to serve an additional four months he owed on previous charges at New Haven Correctional Center.

The correctional center is the facility that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced last month would be the site of a new jobs center aimed at lowering recidivism and crime, as part of the governor’s Second Chance Society initiative.

While at Wyoming Correctional Facility, Smith was separated from his home and family. He got the nickname “CT” from other inmates because he was the only inmate from Connecticut.

He was tired. He knew he wanted something different for his life. In his mind, he could hear his grandmother and his father telling him that he had been raised better than this.

Smith started re-educating himself, earning a New York GED, on top of the Connecticut high school diploma he already had, and he started teaching math and reading to other inmates.

Then he met Donald Paddock, senior coordinator for the prison’s alcohol and substance abuse treatment program, who served as a mentor and told Smith to “be the solution.”

“He came to me thirsty for truth,” said Paddock, who spoke to The Day with Smith’s permission. “He wanted to change.”

As part of the program, Smith charted a five-year plan on how he would address obstacles. Paddock was so impressed by Smith that he had Smith stand up in front of a room of 60 inmates to teach what he had learned.

Together, they created a billboard and posted on the prison walls the slogans “Nobody changes until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change” and “How much pain do you need to feel until you change?”

Paddock said Smith led by example, earning a following of inmates who also wanted to turn their lives around.

“He’s lived it and he’s walked it and I couldn’t be more proud of him and more happy for him,” Paddock said.

A study from the state Office of Policy and Management found that among the 16,286 people released from Connecticut’s prisons in 2008, about 54 percent had returned to prison within three years.

Smith told his parole board he was never going back.

“I want to be that monkey wrench that screws up the recidivism rate,” he said. “It’s a tough nut to crack- you have a lot of people betting on you to lose.

“I wanted to be the one to believe what everyone else doubted. Success comes from one’s belief in self.”

But life after prison- from looking for a job to living in a world that has changed so much in each year an inmate has been behind bars -can be overwhelming.

Smith said he made cleaning the house while his wife was at work his first job, which kept him occupied as he tried to figure out his next step.

He then began working for his brother-in-law, an assistant manager at Valvoline.

He worked his way up to managerial positions in various auto shops until a customer, impressed by his work, suggested he open his own at a gas station the man owned.

His wife’s grandmother saw his progress, too, and lent him the money to open up Gree-C-Guys about five years ago.

His advice for former inmates is to be patient and determined. Eventually, he said, one employer will say yes, no matter how many before said no.

“You just have to be willing to work hard, willing to endure and persevere,” he said. “Don’t give up.”

Within Mennonite Bible Fellowship Church in New Haven on a quiet and sunny fall morning, about 20 congregants clap and smile as they and Pastor Cedric Smith sing “Blessed Assurance” together.

“This is my story, this is my song,” they sing, “praising my Savior all the day long.”

Smith delivers a sermon to those seated in the small, light-colored pews, a message about resurrection life, a new life in Jesus Christ. He speaks about putting the will of God first and putting “Cedio,” his old street name, behind him.

“When someone tells you, ‘You ain’t nothing. You’re never going to be anything,’ don’t believe them,” Smith says from the pulpit. “Believe what God says.”

“This is who I am today, because God opened the door for me that no one can shut.”

Smith found his way to the church he now leads when he was several years out of prison.

He heard his children getting up every Sunday for church with their grandmother, and he said it hit him that he should be setting a better example for them by going to church, too.

Smith and his wife started visiting different churches in New Haven. He felt drawn to the Mennonite Bible Fellowship Church led by the Rev. Glenn Reynolds, a neighborhood pastor Smith had known since he was young.

Smith said he was still living with a “gangster’s mentality,” but could feel change coming on.

On the second Sunday he went to the church, he jumped out of his seat during prayer and thanked God for seeing him through prison and giving him his family.

Reynolds asked Smith to lead a Bible study and gradually gave him more opportunities to speak to the congregation. Then he told Smith he was retiring, and the people wanted him to be their pastor.

“I can’t be their pastor,” Smith said.

“You already are,” Reynolds said.

Smith wants the congregants of his church to know all are welcome.

“It’s important for them to understand that it’s not the perfect people that God calls. He calls the people who understand they’re broken.”

Today, Smith says he was saved from his life of crime by the grace of God.

In reflection, Smith says, he was impressionable as a young man, and the things his uncle was able to buy for him made him feel cared for. He was “believing a lie” that he could have the life he wanted by dealing drugs and that he was doing it for his family.

But he was always looking over his shoulder. The money running through his hands couldn’t stop him from eventually losing his freedom and being separated from his loved ones- until he worked to get his life back.

One day after church, Smith’s wife, Adrienne, remarked to him that she always sees him smiling now.

“I never smiled, but today that’s all I do,” Smith said.

He said his family, church and the shop are the mainstays of his life, and he couldn’t be happier. He said he feels as if the person he was before was an attempt to be someone he wasn’t.

“I made the right choice to change for the right reason,” he said. “I knew my children needed their father.”

Smith said he enjoys working on cars in the Old Lyme shop, meeting new people and serving as a “part-time counselor” to those who come in and ask for advice. He makes sure to treat them with kindness and respect, he said, and to offer them fair prices.

Customers say they come for the service- and the inspiring conversation.

Joseph Haag, who first met Smith after a flat tire a couple of years ago, said he enjoys hanging out at the shop and knows he can come there to relax or when he’s having a bad day.

“You can talk to him about anything,” Haag said.

When Harry Sedgwick, an Old Lyme resident and retired businessman who is a member of the Mentoring Corps for Community Development, a volunteer group in town, first met Smith at the shop, Smith asked, “How can I help you, sir?”

Sedgwick looked over his shoulder.

“Who’s sir? There’s no sir here. I’m Harry.”

“It’s been a wonderful friendship,” Sedgwick said, adding that he sensed Smith’s empathy, kindness and understanding, and learned his story as he got to know him.

“This is a guy who fought his way back from the depths,” Sedgwick said.

Smith said he wants others to see past the “glitz and glamour,” the idealized version of crime portrayed on TV and radio. He has goals for the future, including a prison ministry program in which he would speak with inmates and tell them they can turn their lives around.

He hopes that by telling his story he will reach others at risk and show that people don’t have to be defined by poor choices they made in their past, but can learn from them.

“I am right where people told me I could never be,” he said.

___

Information from: The Day, https://www.theday.com

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