The New Revival Center of Renewal, a jail ministry in Prince George's County, isn't much to look at.
The ministry sits at the end of a bleak Forestville strip mall that includes a dry cleaner, a barbershop, a deli and five storefront churches. The offices are furnished with secondhand tables and chairs. The computers date from the early 1990s.
The ministry's founder, the Rev. Paul A. Wells, doesn't have the typical minister's resume. He was a drug dealer and car thief who indulged in drugs and alcohol through much of his teens and early twenties.
Wells's flock at the nondenominational New Revival Kingdom Church is just 100 strong. The church often struggles to pay its monthly bills. The jail ministry has virtually no budget, depending on volunteer workers and the services of government agencies.
What Wells and his band of volunteers have in abundance is hard-earned faith, backed up by good works:
New Revival is where Tyrone Turpin, who said he once robbed a convenience store clerk while struggling with his crack addiction, acted on Wells's suggestion to launch a Monday-night substance abuse recovery group that relies on the Scriptures. Turpin, 41, said he got clean, and he hopes to become an addiction counselor.
The Monday night group is where Jay Lee, who once dropped $500 in one night buying cognac for himself and his friends at a nightclub, got sober. Once he was sober, Lee, 25, of Suitland, got a job testing gas pipelines.
New Revival is where Yvonne Marshall, 80, drops by every Monday to leaf through the Yellow Pages and call restaurants, retail stores, landscapers and other businesses to see if they have jobs for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics and ex-convicts.
The ministry's work has attracted the support of government agencies including the state Division of Parole and Probation and the Prince George's County Corrections Department, which has satellite offices there. The county state's attorney's office often refers parents seeking help for their children coming out of prison or jail to New Revival for job placement, substance abuse counseling, transitional housing and even clothes.
"Pastor Wells is doing extraordinary work," said State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey. "The ministry is probably carrying a lot of the load that the government carries in other jurisdictions. It's amazing what he's doing with limited resources."
Ivey's office is helping Wells prepare and submit applications for grants from the state and federal governments and private foundations. New Revival receives less than $10,000 annually from the county and the budgets of two County Council members, Wells said. The ministry survives largely on contributions of services and supplies, such as bathroom tissue and copying paper, from government agencies.
About 1,200 inmates, primarily people who have been convicted of misdemeanors and people awaiting trial, are held at the county jail at a given time, said Barry L. Stanton, director of the county Corrections Department. About 15,000 are released yearly after serving their time or while awaiting trial, he said.
Wells estimated that New Revival provides services to about 2,000 people annually, about 85 percent of whom are addicted to drugs, alcohol or both.
"Our goal is to change people's lives," Wells said. "As a ministry, we have to do it, whether the county supports us or not. There will be some carjackings that won't happen, some break-ins that won't happen. We're intent on making a difference."
Wells, 60, knows that drug pushers, thieves, alcoholics and addicts can change if they want to. He did.
In the 1960s, Wells appeared to be headed for jail, not to be head of a jail ministry. Wells said he ran wild in his Northeast Washington neighborhood near Hechinger Mall. "I stole cars, sold reefer, cocaine," he recalled.
Wells said he probably would have been incarcerated eventually but for his father, a D.C. police officer who intervened whenever he got caught with drugs or stealing a car. In the late 1960s, Wells's father and an uncle who was director of clinics at Howard University's dentistry school helped Wells get admitted to the school, the pastor said.
Wells later established his own dental equipment company and obtained a number of contracts with the District government, including with the D.C. jail and St. Elizabeths Hospital, Wells said. The business did well.
In the mid-1970s, Wells bought and rented out apartment buildings and houses in neighborhoods near Howard University and east of the Anacostia River. As he prospered, Wells gave up drinking, cigarettes and, finally, drugs. He and his wife, Charlotte, had three daughters.
"I had all the finer things in life," Wells said. "But I asked, 'is this all there is?' I still had a hole in my heart." Wells said he asked Charlotte why she put up with him through his crazy years. Her answer: Jesus.
Wells decided to become a minister. He went to theology school for six years, then completed his studies at the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies in Israel. Wells started his church in 1996.
Four years later, Wells said, he was ministering at the jail in Upper Marlboro, leading Bible studies. One day as he was leaving the jail, he noticed a man who had been released three hours earlier just hanging out. The man said he had no ride, no money, no place to go, Wells said.
So, Wells went to Stanton, the corrections chief, and offered to help. The jail ministry was born.
"Some churches provide good help. None provide the magnitude of the help Pastor Wells does," Stanton said. "I'll be honest with you. I wish we had a lot more churches and pastors who do what Pastor Wells does."
As with his own road to redemption, Wells's efforts to help ex-convicts do not follow a straight line. For instance, congregation members and others donate TVs, VCRs, shoes and clothing for yard sales to benefit the former inmates. About a year ago, Wells opened the ministry office and discovered that several TVs and VCRs had been stolen by an ex-convict volunteer who had been entrusted with a key.
"Out of 10 people who come through the door, we might change the lives of three of them, if we stay connected with them," Wells said. "We have to keep trying. In the church, we are all ex-offenders. We have all fallen short of the glory of God."