Out of Desperation

By Patricia Obletz, Editor


Out of desperation, there comes a way. For a growing number of Wisconsin men, that way out is with the Table of the Saints, an interfaith outreach organization that helps people who have trouble with addiction. The Table of Saints originated in 2010 and at first concentrated on helping former prisoners return to society and become productive, tax-paying citizens; today they offer help to all men who struggle with addiction. The Table’s way out of the hell that is addiction isn’t the only way out, which is why The Table partners with organizations that provide housing, educational, vocational and medical services, and more.

The beauty of the Table of the Saints is that its founders have earned the spiritual wealth needed to overcome addiction, homelessness, drug dealing and other crimes. Each man in his own way reached a point in life in which he understood he could no longer continue alone. This admission opened the door to their acceptance of a Creator/Higher Power. Each man realized in his own way that free will is a gift from God that is best served by The Golden Rule, as role modeled by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. They came to this conclusion: “You follow your will or you follow God’s will.”

The Table of the Saints founders share this wealth with recently released ex-offenders every Thursday at 6pm at Rehoboth Church of God In Christ, 2830 W. Hadley, Milwaukee. Members of the Table also speak to students and adults at schools, community and religious centers.

Founding member and chairman of the board of directors, Charles Hampton, said that by providing men with a place to sit down and reason together with other men who have been in the same kinds of trouble creates a safe environment in which to gain the self-knowledge and self-respect needed to overcome addiction and its attending problems. “The Table of the Saints, this brotherhood,” Hampton said, “understands that, ‘Without Vision, People Perish.’ What has happened to us is happening to many other families right now. If you know someone who is in need of anti-addiction aid – your brother, sister, friend or relative, he or she could even be your neighbor, we are extending an open, no cost invitation to you to give them our website: www.TableoftheSaints.”

Hampton, William Harrell, Stan Quezaire and James Wilborn, all executive members of the Table of the Saints, Inc., board of directors, joined me last fall to talk about their work. One uncommon common bond stood out: before meeting each other, each man had reached a breaking point in his life. In the void at that point, spiritual need opened a door and suddenly, in different ways and at different times, these men felt compelled to establish a personal relationship with a Higher Power. Each man chose God. They say that creating a personal and ongoing relationship with the creator in the form of Jesus Christ makes them “born again,” and that their resolve to resist temptation strengthens every time they talk to him.

Changing perspective

While still in prison, Hampton and Harrell wound up in the same cell at Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center in Milwaukee. They immediately recognized in each other a kindred spirit. Soon, on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings, they led bible study support groups that engaged seven to 20 men who were open to creating their own personal relationship with God by reading and studying the Old and New Testaments, as well as by sharing their reasons for breaking the law and landing in prison. By learning in bible study how Jesus handled problems, they gained new insights and began to work on viewing life from Jesus Christ’s perspective.

Hampton said working with and helping men while he too was still in prison had deepened his own self-knowledge about the problems that they all once thought committing crimes would solve. This knowledge gave him the strength and desire to continue this work on the outside.

Hampton was born in 1951 in Milwaukee. His father owned a nightclub for 40 years, and his mother was a homemaker. They were “loving, wonderful parents,” who didn’t include religion or God in their family life. Hampton said he learned about the world by hanging around his father’s nightclub, sharpening his pool playing and shooting craps skills. At age 13, wanting money to buy things, he got his first temporary job shoveling coal for Manpower. He celebrated this occasion by taking his first drink. He dropped out of 10th grade at age 17. He could read and write and was “very good in math.” For a few years, he drove a cab and worked for his father. By the time he was 27, alcohol and drugs owned him. To feed his addiction, he started selling drugs.

For Hampton, spiritual wealth beckoned first during his father’s funeral service in 1999. He was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the beauty of the church, the meaning of the sermon, the depth of his loss. For the first time, he took a realistic look at the life he’d been leading till then. He and his bride-to-be began attending church services. He started studying the bible with Pastor Thornhill at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church and was baptized. With Jesus Christ as Hampton’s role model, he worked on practicing The Golden Rule, learning to treat others as he wanted them to treat him. He entered treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. But, the problem was, he went down as a “dry sinner” and came up as a wet one. He also continued to make a living by dealing drugs and was arrested and convicted again. In 2001, while awaiting his sentencing hearing, he realized that he needed to “start getting to know God,” Hampton said. He began to study with Reverend Michael Champion of New Creatures in Christ Ministry and with his help, he came to a better understanding about God. Facing 13 years behind bars, he picked up a bible to continue his study in prison.

Do Good to Feel Good

Reading Joyce Meyer’s book, “The Battlefield of the Mind,” gave him new ways of looking at life, as did the Bible. He read the Bible, taking courses on it, “studying night and day,” Hampton said. “I proved to myself that what God says is true, that if you do good things, you’ll feel good.”

When Hampton and William Harrell became cellmates, their bond became greater than themselves. This time after they paid their dues and returned to society, they turned their new-found spiritual wealth into a vital community service that helps others safely and productively reenter the world upon release from prison. The name of this service is The Table of the Saints, which was inspired by (Psalms 23:5): “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup runs over.”

Neither man returned to the friends they had before prison, and both men improved their relationships with family, and got the educational, medical and vocational help needed to live the rest of their lives in peace on the right side of the law.

William W. Harrell is Secretary of the Table of the Saints board of directors. He was born in Milwaukee in 1953 to loving, kind and religious parents who both worked; his grandmother, he said, made sure that he attended Sunday school. Even so, Harrell, a self-described rebel, started drinking and doing drugs at 18 and kept it up in college and after, on the job, not realizing that he had become addicted.

Harrell and his girlfriend had a son in 1971, married in ’73, and then had a daughter. After college, Harrell held a variety of jobs from nightclub manager to the city health department. Crack cocaine led him to make poor choices. He became “keeper of a drug house.” He went to a prison in Wisconsin and was transferred to one in Oklahoma. This house of correction offered a rehab program, Applied Basic Life Principles (ABLP), which used the Bible as a textbook --- the name penitentiary comes from the Pilgrims, who used to put their criminals in one house and make them read the bible as penance.

Winning the war against temptation

Harrell said that he never before had connected God to his recovery from addiction, which is why he was in and out of prison. Harrell’s life changed when he at last “gave” himself to God. While in prison, he took a mail-in course to become a licensed minister. He gained new strength to fight the temptations of addictive substances and womanizing. He said that this spiritual war was ongoing and that his work with the Table of the Saints and his relationship with God weighted this war against sin. Today, he is able to resist all temptations, even small ones, such as taking a paperclip without asking. “The only way I can survive is for me to keep coming back to The Table to help other people return from prison to make a positive life for themselves in their community.”

Harrell said that a lot of men can make it as productive citizens, taxpayers and family men if they are sincere in trying. But a lot of them have been in prison a long time and they feel lost once they’re free because technology has changed the way the world operates, from lifestyle to cost of living, to contemporary jargon and music. Or their idea of freedom is fed by a need for instant gratification. The men who get caught up in the latter usually don’t seek help until they’ve fallen back on old ways and get arrested again. “We encourage men to begin a relationship with the Creator/Higher Power first,” Harrell said. “Then we help the whole person with referrals and outreach programs to obtain necessary healthcare, counseling, housing or an educational degree, GED or vocational training at MATC. We are also available if someone just needs someone to talk to for spiritual and emotional support.”

Expungement is the only sure way to cut recidivism

Charles Hampton and William Harrell met Stan Quezaire while still at Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center. Quezaire’s church, Rehoboth Church of God in Christ, is across the street. Quezaire is the Table of the Saints board Treasurer, a deacon and a Sunday school teacher. He was born in Milwaukee in 1955. After high school, he got an apprenticeship at Briggs and Stratton as a tool and dye maker.

He was 21 when he and his brother made extra money by taking black women to the border towns between Milwaukee and Minnesota to be go-go dancers (not strippers), but when the girls tired of it, he began to forge checks to pay for his drugs. He was caught, convicted and sent to prison. At that time, there was a program for freshly released first-time low-risk offenders to have their record expunged if they spent the next eight years free from addiction and crime. “Expungement is the only sure way to reduce recidivism,” Quezaire said. “But I didn’t change my ways after my record was wiped clean. I became a functional addict – I’ve had the same job for 32 years. But in 1998, I had a nervous breakdown. I was literally at my wits end. I went into treatment. I realized that I had tried everything the way I wanted to, and I had landed in prison and ruined my relationships — friends, wife, and children.

“Even after treatment, my life didn’t improve until I accepted the knowledge that I couldn’t live this life alone and that I needed God. I came to the point of knowing that the only thing I had to give up for Christ was my sins: addiction and womanizing.”

Quezaire became a deacon and a Sunday school teacher in 2007 because he wanted to start a prison ministry and share the knowledge that he had acquired. He applied for this position at the Department of Corrections (DOC), but was turned down several times because, despite its “expungement,” the background checks revealed his prison record. Seemingly out of the blue, Quezaire got a call from Charles Urbanik from the Cedar Hills Church, who invited him to join the Table of Saints in 2010.

James E. Wilborn is The Table’s board of directors Intercessor/Prayer Warrior. He was born in 1953 in Mississippi, grew up in Chicago, and came to Milwaukee at age 45 in ’93 as a member of a Christian ministry of bible disciples, Victory Outreach, a world-wide organization. But, he said, he was a member only intellectually, with his head, not his heart. Feeling unfulfilled by his work, he quit and wound up living in the streets for five years, succumbing to drug addiction. He was arrested and convicted for delivering illegal substances and ended up in prison from1995 to ’98. Once free, he fell into old habits, again a full-blown addict. Two years later, he committed a “strong-armed robbery” to feed his habit and received a six-year prison sentence, 2000 to 2008. For two years after this release from prison, he managed to deny the temptation of drugs and alcohol. But this time, when he fell, he took himself to the alcohol and drug treatment program at the Network Recovery Rehabilitation Residence, where he remained for two years. Upon leaving in 2010, Wilborn moved to the Miracle House, and met William Harrell, who invited him to join the Table of the Saints. February 18, 2010, was the day that Wilborn says that he was saved from using drugs because that day, he received Christ back into his life, became a prayer minister and overcame his addiction to drugs. This time, however, his heart was involved, not just his head.

James Wilborn said that he never expressed himself to God before joining the Table of the Saints. He said, “There has to be a willingness to change your mind and your heart and understanding to make it on the outside. The Lord changed my mind and heart and understanding. I was fortunate: instead of being sent back to jail, I was sent to Alternative to Revocation treatment, which I see as God’s doing. But I had to be broken before God could fill the void in my heart.

“When people say, what kind of God would let bad things happen, in some cases, they don’t realize that they have choices, or that free will is a gift from God.”

Escaping death three times

Wilborn said that at age 16, he was shot six times. The operation to save his life took 18 hours; the medical team didn’t think he would make it.

At 21, he needed a tonsillectomy. The surgeon cut an artery in his throat by mistake and the nurses ignored him when he said that he was having trouble breathing. Imagine struggling for air until a second shift nurse respected him and examined his throat: She discovered that he was choking on his own blood and rushed him back into surgery. The surgeon failed again, forcing James Wilborn into a third operation. This one repaired his artery, but the medical staff doubted that Wilborn would make it through the night.

The third time a medical staff believed that Wilborn would die before dawn was the time that he was 27 and began to have seizures. He was in prison at the time and was sent to a civilian hospital with a policeman stationed at his door. Tests showed that severe ulcers had perforated his intestines. Internal bleeding was cutting off oxygen in his brain, causing the seizures. In surgery, they patched him up and returned him to his room. Because the doctors doubted that Wilborn would be alive by morning, the police guard was dismissed. Wilborn asked to see a minister. The minister told him that the Lord told him that Wilborn was not going to die. The minister “laid his hands on” Wilborn and prayed. James Wilborn greeted another dawn and found his brother by his side. They hadn’t seen each other in years after Wilborn’s brother joined the Navy. The Navy gave James’ brother a leave of absence and paid for his transportation to attend his brother’s deathbed. When Wilborn didn’t die, he was sent to an institutional hospital. This medical team repeated the same tests, but these result showed that Wilborn’s intestines had healed. He was sent to a maximum security prison to serve out the last four months of his sentence.

Upon his release, Wilborn returned to Milwaukee. Because he was tempted to use again and wind up in prison again, he checked himself into the Network Recovery Rehabilitation residence and got the help he needed. Meeting William Harrell and joining the Table of the Saints played a huge role in his triumph over addiction, because doing good to feel good works.

Wilborn became a member of the Grand Avenue Club and learned the skills needed for the job he now holds.

Wisconsin Needs the Table of the Saints

The fact is that 97 percent of people in prison return to their communities. Too many of them become repeat offenders because there are not enough services to support them emotionally and spiritually as they find their way on the outside, avoid old friends and old habits, find new ones and make amends with family.

Like many states, Wisconsin is about to reduce its prison population through an early-release initiative as part of a strategy to address a state budget shortfall. While the details of the early-release plan are being finalized, it is expected that up to 3,000 inmates will be released from prison. Currently, Wisconsin houses 22,212 inmates. In addition, 71,407 offenders are either on probation or parole. Unless changes are made in Wisconsin’s approach to probation and parole, it is likely that recidivism will offset any long-term savings.

According to a 2011 Pew Center report, the 46 percent rate of re-incarceration in Wisconsin is slightly higher than the national average. Prisoners cost government $32,000 plus per person per year. One would think that the elected class’s constant harping on “fixing the deficit” would steer them towards programs that reduce the billions and billions of dollars currently spent on housing felons. Some states, such as Oregon, are more successful at lowering the rate of return to prison: between 1999 and 2004, this fair state’s re-incarceration rate dropped from 33.4 to 22.8.

Most people who have broken laws are non-violent and low-risk — Wisconsin’s marijuana arrest rate for Black people is 1,255 versus 217 for Whites. In the 2012 election, Oregon residents also voted to legalize smoking pot for fun, as well as for medicinal purposes, which will further reduce its prison population.

The fact is also that people who have mental illnesses are three times more likely to be imprisoned than medically treated. Often addiction is a result of their attempt to self-medicate. Traumatized veterans returning from war continue to increase this enormous problem made worse by the number of people shot by police: “Nationwide, roughly half of the 357 to 500 people shot to death by police officers are mentally ill. Often, the officers were aware of the subject’s instability.

A 2007 study by the Crime and Justice Institute estimated that properly executed rehabilitation and treatment programs targeted precisely at specific offender groups could reduce recidivism by 10%−20%. This reduction would tremendously benefit public safety, and it would save money: a 10% reduction in new crimes committed by active parolees over one year alone could save Wisconsin taxpayers an average of nearly $70 million in incarceration costs.

But, without proper support, failure is likely. Because of the stigma against former prisoners, returning citizens face great challenges, from staying free of drugs to finding and holding steady jobs. The Table of the Saints ministry is committed to offering new and established resources that encourage, enlighten, educate, energize and empower individuals to help free families from the isolation, pain, stigma and shame often associated with the criminal justice system.

80 percent success rate

The Table of the Saints is succeeding: 80 percent of the men who attend the weekly meeting make a positive transition back into community and family life. Joining The Table opens up a world of faith, self-knowledge, self-respect, church communities, referrals and outreach programming. The faith component leads most participants into practicing The Golden Rule as they establish their own personal relationship with God.

It is impossible to know how many young people are diverted from criminal thinking after hearing members of The Table of the Saints in their schools and churches.

To reach more people in need, the Table of Saints joined “M.I.C.A.H. (Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope)” in 2011. Through this partnership, opportunities are created for people who have served time in jail and prison to meet with congregations throughout the metropolitan Milwaukee area. MICAH also works with the Table of the Saints to help recruit and prepare speakers and community leaders to reach even more youth and adults. MICAH named The Table of the Saints the 2012 Volunteer of the Year.

The Table of the Saints also received the 2012 Elijah O’Neal Award of Excellence from Project Return. Both organizations have since formed a partnership.

If you would like to help increase the Table of the Saints’ outreach programs, donations can be made to Project RETURN, 2821 N. 4th St., Suite 202, Milwaukee, WI 53212. Please write Table of the Saints on the memo line. Donors will receive a thank-you letter from Project RETURN for tax deductible reasons.

The Table of the Saints meets every Thursday at 6pm at Rehoboth COGIC, 2830 W. Hadley, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Individual members are available for emotional and spiritual support. For more information, please call Charles Hampton at 414–234–6077 or Minister William Harrell at 414–552–2769.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster. Based on work by tyler schuster.  Page last modified on September 09, 2016

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