The Chaplain and the Prisoner: A Story of Grace
This story was originally published in July 2013 on the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry (OCPM) Website. The Rev. Stephen Powley, a priest in the Antiochian Archdiocese, is the Assistant Director of OCPM. Many other Antiochian Orthodox Christians are involved in OCPM, including Board of Trustees Chairman Kory Warr.
Antiochian priest Fr. Stephen Powley can laugh about it now. At the time, his early encounters with Clark Porter weren't funny. Father Stephen was a prison chaplain; Clark was serving a sentence for robbing a federal post office. "I used to dread walking down Clark's range," Fr. Stephen says, referring to his weekly visits. "I knew he would be livid with me and would cuss me out, I just didn't know why."
Clark admits he was an angry man when Fr. Stephen met him. Though it wasn't yet obvious, he was trying to change, to turn around a young life that had gotten a troubled start. The sixth of seven children, he was raised first by his mother, then his grandmother, and then put into foster care at age eight. After bouncing around the foster care system, he skipped out at fifteen. Two years later he and a friend robbed a post office in downtown St. Louis, making off with little more than $600 and stamps. In 1987, at age 17, Clark was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
He could have been paroled early in 1999, but two years were added on for bad conduct. As he neared his release, he was determined to be ready. He was reading whatever he could—books on self-help and anger management, teachings on Hinduism, Buddhism, mysticism, and Islam. And he was praying. He was looking, he says, for a faith he could hold on to. Christianity was not a possibility. "I hated it," he says. Convinced it was exploitative, he saw it as "We get the land, you get the Bible."
Yet for all his searching, he had hit a wall. About the same time, a man was transferred from another section of the prison to the cell next to his. He was a Buddhist who, through long conversations with Fr. Stephen, had converted to Orthodox Christianity while in prison, taking the baptismal name Zacchaeus. Clark began confiding in him, telling him how he was feeling. Zacchaeus told Clark he was suffering from "coolness of heart."
"When Zacchaeus was moved [to the cell] next to Clark, it was one of those divine appointments that God has for somebody," says Fr. Stephen. "It was Zacchaeus who God used to show Clark how Orthodoxy could help him."
Zacchaeus began recommending Orthodox books for Clark to read and Fr. Stephen provided him the books from the Chapel library. Clark says his introduction to Orthodoxy wasn't watered down. "I read the Patristic fathers. It was straight to the heart of it." One of the first books he read was the classic Unseen Warfare. He had to keep stopping and contemplating what he was reading, because the book hit him so hard. One book led to another: The Ladder of Divine Ascent, The Philokalia, writings by St. John Chrysostom, and books on the Jesus Prayer.
"I did a lot of reading," he says. "I would read an hour of an Orthodox book and then an hour of the Bible. My goal was to read the Bible in a year and I did. And then I started it over again." He says reading the Bible and Orthodox books gave him focus. He was no longer raging at Fr. Stephen, seeking counsel from him instead. He began fasting, and he read the prescribed Orthodox prayers five times a day, beginning with matins in the morning. When people ask him today why he's not a big football fan, he points to his prayer rule. His steadfastness to the prayer rule meant he had to miss watching Sunday morning football games. "I couldn't do both," he says.
Eventually Clark sought to be baptized. But with his release date drawing near, Fr. Stephen wanted him to wait and be baptized within an Orthodox community in St. Louis. "Orthodoxy isn't just a matter of joining a denomination. It's a way of life and community. If he was going to be in prison another 10 years, it would have been different and his baptism would have taken place there," Fr. Stephen says. Clark wrote to a few Orthodox churches; one didn't write back, another sent him books and told him to be in touch when he got out.
Once out of prison, he started calling those same churches. He was concerned how they might react, both to his felony conviction and to him as an African American. He called one church and explained his situation to the priest. On the other end of the line, dead silence. Clark thanked him and hung up. Undeterred, he looked in the phone book and realized that St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was a mile from the halfway house where he was staying. He called and was put through to the priest. As he began to explain his situation, the priest cut him off. "Just come to church," he said.
So he did. There he met the woman who would become his Godmother. She wasn't concerned with Clark's background either. She too kept telling him, "Come to church." He was baptized in 2002, six months after his release. He knew the St. Nicholas community had accepted him when, in the kitchen during the Church's annual festival, one of the women yelled at him for getting in her way. Seeing the shock on Clark's face, she retorted, "You better get used to it, because you're with the Greeks now."
Though he's been a parishioner at St. Nicholas for years, he's still moved by the trust the church showed him from the beginning. For the first two years he served in the altar, wanting to "understand the Liturgy from a personal level." And he teaches Sunday School to the first graders. "They never cared about my situation," he says, still marveling that they never judged him for being an ex-felon. The church gave him money from its scholarship fund every year to help him through college. And every year the church continues to show their support by making donations to the US Federal Probation Office where Clark works, donating appliances, clothing, gift cards, and toys in support of men and women who've recently been released from prison.
The church may have trusted Clark, but trust in himself and God played a role, too. His first job out of prison was washing dishes in a restaurant. The environment wasn't a good one—the staff was using drugs and hiring prostitutes. The owner was verbally abusive, something Clark couldn't tolerate. "I got two choices," he told himself. Quit, or wind up back in prison. So he did the former, and had faith that something would work out. When his Godmother questioned his wisdom he told her, "I'll find a new job within the week."
Days later, on campus at the community college where he was taking courses, he learned of a work study opportunity through another student. Clark approached the woman who was hiring and explained his situation. She lectured him for having quit his job, but she gave him a chance. She understood where he was coming from; her husband was in jail. That led to part-time jobs on campus, including as a writing tutor.
Not long after that, a professor at the college, impressed with Clark's writing, showed it to a dean at Washington University. The university offered Clark a scholarship. In 2006 he graduated with a bachelor's degree and then went on to earn a master's in social work from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Since 2009 he has been a project support specialist for the Probation Office of the US District Court—the very office he was released to in 2001—where he helps ex-offenders transition into their new lives. He and a colleague created an intensive supervision program, Project Re-Direct, which targets offenders who are at high-risk of returning to prison. The program demands a 20-hour a week commitment from participants, requiring them to engage in GED courses, job readiness, counseling, and community service. The theory is that intensive and comprehensive support is needed to reduce recidivism. Project Re-Direct has had impressive results, with one of the highest success rates of any program of its kind in the country.
Working with men who've been released from prison, Clark understands their struggles. For all his success, he is deeply humble and doesn't see himself as special. "There but for the grace of God go I," he says. "I always relied on church and family," explaining how he made it once he was released. "I've had a lot of grace in my life."