It was my first drive down Hartford, Connecticut’s Farmington Avenue and, to put it delicately, I had no idea where I was going. Frantically looking for what I expected to be a church, I found a small building outlined in fluorescent green, buried behind a parking lot and sandwiched between two apartment buildings and a convenience store outlet. This is the main office of the Conference of Churches, a faith-based organization and the governing body of over 400 churches in the greater Hartford Area. Responsible for organizing civic projects throughout the Hartford community, the Conference of Churches identifies and trains transformational leaders. When I sat down with Reverend Lydell Brown III, Director of Strategic Partnerships, he defined transformational leaders as, “Those leaders who just don’t want to see change in the church but change in the community; those who want to see change in power brokers, lawmakers.”
We sit at a small, round table in Reverend Brown’s office as he explains the mission’s work with the prison population and ex-offenders. A photoshopped portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama high-fiving hangs on the wall and below that a bobblehead of NBA superstar Lebron James sits on the bureau – the last things I’d expect to find in a minister’s office.
With over 20 years of ministry experience, Brown has been working with the Conference of Churches for the past decade. Among numerous community projects, he ran a fatherhood program aimed at helping formerly incarcerated fathers get back into their children’s lives. Through the Fatherhood Initiative Brown dealt directly with fathers living in halfway houses and coached his clients not to make up for lost time with their children, but to be the best possible father they could from then on out.
Based on a national curriculum, the Fatherhood Initiative program was introduced to Connecticut by former CT State Department of Social Services Commissioner Patricia Wilson-Coker. As a single mother, Wilson-Coker saw how the absence of her son’s father affected him and sought to improve the lives of children growing up in homes without fathers. The program experienced considerable success at its onset. “What this (program) was able to do was give them some tools to better associate with the mother and let their children see them in a different light. In the three years that we had the program, I would say it touched at least 600 lives, including fathers, their children, and mothers,” Brown said.
A noteworthy success of the Fatherhood Initiative was a holiday party, where the fathers in the program wrapped presents and gave them to their children during a Christmas party. Church-run toy drives, local businesses, non-profit organizations, and the Department of Social Services, supplied the gifts. For participants, it was a very profound moment. “For many of these kids it was the first time in their lives their fathers had given them anything,” Brown noted. A surprising element of this event was how it affected the mothers in attendance. Given the sometimes volatile nature of the relationships the mothers had with some of the men in the program, they came to the event very suspect, questioning their intent and motives. They left, however, touched by this display and act of kindness, seeing their child’s father taking a more active role. “It was touching, it was very touching.”
Hartford native and client of the Fatherhood Initiative, Angel Rodriquez Jr. was an ex member of the notorious Hartford street gang the Los Solidos. Rodriquez Jr. spent over a third of his life in prison, the result of several gun and drug possession charges. Former Hartford Courant columnist Stan Simpson profiled Rodriquez in 2007. Then 35, Rodriquez was living in the Drapelick Center halfway house in Bloomfield, CT. Participation in the Fatherhood Initiative helped Rodriquez reconnect with his son, Angel III, and eased his transition from gangbanger to father. That year, Rodriquez decorated the Christmas tree in the lobby of Drapelick and took part in the Christmas party along with 50 other clients of the Fatherhood Initiative – the first Christmas he spent with his family in over decade. The program’s impact set Rodriguez on a new course in his life, as he strove to become a better father. “Always stand on your own two feet and make your own decisions," Rodriguez told The Courant. "I didn't have nobody in my life that really cared, the way I care about my son now. It gives me a lot of purpose."
Despite the program’s success, funding from the CT Department of Social Services was cut. Programs working with formerly incarcerated individuals are not, as Brown put it, “attractive” to potential funders. “Let’s put it this way: again, it’s about what our funders think is attractive. Funders don’t think helping ex-offenders is attractive.” The Conference of Churches still provides some charities for families affected by incarceration, such as giving out tickets to see the holiday show at the Bushnell Theatre and to events and performances at the XL Center.
The Conference of Churches has since taken on an advisory role, becoming a consulting firm for non-profits. Though no longer directly involved with the Fatherhood Initiative, Brown acts as a liaison to other branches of the program, offering to train those looking to launch the program in their church or community. Brown has a lengthy history of dealing with formerly incarcerated individuals, whether in his church or during previous visits to Connecticut correctional facilities, and firmly believes in the need for improved support programs upon their release. “When you come out, that’s when the rubber hits the road. Those same demons start speaking to folk that spoke to them before they got into prison. So, I’d like to see more support, more programs. Not just halfway houses, real programs that promote change.”
Regardless of the program’s apparent success, funding remained a critical issue, as it does for many non-profits. It’s a struggle that Brown and the Conference of Churches never escape. “We’re on the battlefield. Other churches are on the battlefield, trying to be there for fathers and mothers and children. It’s the family unit that’s being attacked, not just fathers.”
It’s sort of the mass causality nature…that calls us to action in a way that other things may not.