LYNCHBURG, Va. — For Roger Paul, it’s about giving out what he’s been given.
Rescued from an early life of drugs and jail time by faith and kindly ministers, Paul, 60, now dedicates his time to helping prisoners learn to live after their releases, with the goal of never seeing them behind bars again.
“When God rescued me, I wanted to go back and help them,” he said.
Paul, who heads up Interfaith Outreach Association’s progressive release program at the Lynchburg Adult Detention Center, takes particular pride in the low recidivism rate of inmates who go through the 12-week, life skills program.
Out of 141 who have participated in the program, only five have been incarcerated since. Paul doesn’t believe that’s a coincidence, pointing to two factors the program emphasizes.
“One is that we have a message of hope, that a person can change,” he said. “Second, there are people and resources that can help you.”
Paul said his own history helps him in ministering to inmates, particularly once he realized the flaw in his way of thinking during the years he was strung out and intermittently behind bars.
“I used to think I had street smarts,” he said. “But I began to realize — if I was so smart, why did I keep getting arrested? Why am I broke?”
Through the program, he said, he aims to help people fix flawed thinking, with a special emphasis on the Bible’s admonition that “a man reaps what he sows.”
“You can’t sow negative and reap positive. It’s impossible,” he said, adding that, conversely, “You can’t sow positive and reap negative.”
Paul knows something about sowing negative seeds. In the four years after he graduated high school, playing drums in rock ‘n’ roll bands, he said,
“I was on drugs every day for four years, at least four years. I got so messed up, I didn’t know what I was or where I was going.”
That changed after an encounter on the beach with an old woman who told him about Jesus, and he accepted God’s forgiveness.
From then on, Paul said, he’s wanted nothing more than to help those who were in his same situation.
He became a chaplain for a jail in West Palm Beach, Fla., and eventually moved to Lynchburg with his wife and two sons to pursue a degree from Liberty University. After retiring from his career as a postal worker in 2009, Paul came on full-time with Interfaith Outreach.
“I feel I’m doing what he called me to do. It’s energizing. I can’t wait to wake up tomorrow morning.”
Patricia Young, of Goode, who volunteers with the group’s women’s program, said she sees that passion evident in Paul in the way he handles the ministry.
“He’s done a lot of research and he has a heart for the people,” she said. “It really warms my heart.”
Young, who volunteered with the program before Paul took over, then stopped for a time, said she started volunteering again for the most recent session.
“I truly believe it’s just but by the grace of God I could be sitting right next to those girls,” she said.
“You just sit there and cry with the people. You feel their pain and they’re just human beings that want to be loved and need a helping hand.”
The upshot, Paul said, is that he sees himself as a kind of “divine connector.”
“I know I can’t fix anybody myself, but I do see God do miracles. I do see God comfort people and encourage people, that only he could do, through me.”