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Hillsboro church breaks ground, brings sex offenders out of the darkness

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PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Clifford Jones, pastor at Sonrise Church in Hillsboro, prays with a man before a recent church service for ex-convicts.Doug Bennett lives in downtown Portland. But twice a week he makes the 15-mile trek to worship and volunteer at Sonrise Church in Hillsboro.

Joseph Savage isn’t even sure he’s a Christian, at least not by the standard of belief that predominates at Sonrise, an evangelical Conservative Baptist church. “I don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, yet,” the 68-year-old Savage says. Still, Savage travels to Sonrise nearly every Sunday for an early afternoon dinner and a 5 p.m. church service.

Both men and about 150 others (and a few women) find something at the sprawling, 1,250-member Sonrise that they say they’ve never encountered at any other place of worship. In fact, according to national church authorities, there aren’t any other mainstream churches in the country doing what Sonrise does every Sunday.

Bennett and Savage are both ex-convicts. Both also are convicted sex offenders. Sonrise, which for seven years has run a homeless shelter, also has seen fit to open its doors to a second population of people who live on the outskirts of society — felons.

In addition to welcoming men and women who are no longer in prison, the church has established a special arrangement with Washington County's parole and probation department. Inmates at the county’s Community Corrections Center can get day passes to attend Sonrise’s afternoon Light My Way dinner and service.

In taking on that responsibility, Sonrise has responded to neighborhood concerns by training a volunteer security detail that sweeps the church to make sure no minors have lingered from the morning service or the midday Hispanic service. Light My Way attendees use designated restrooms and security stays on duty throughout the Light My Way dinner and service.

About 150 people attend a service at Sonrise each Sunday afternoon for ex-convicts.

Sex offenders shunned elsewhere

Over time, word about these special precautions passed through a subset of ex-convicts — sex offenders. Sex offenders can’t worship at most churches, synagogues or mosques because of probation and parole conditions that require them to steer clear of children. But the Light My Way security arrangements make it possible for even sex offenders to attend.

As a result, Sonrise Church has become known among ex-convicts and sex offenders throughout the Portland metro area as a place where they are not only accepted, but embraced. As many as half of the men and women attending Sunday’s Light My Way services are sex offenders, according to Bennett and Savage, though church officials say the percentage is often lower.

Nobody feels more like an outcast than a sex offender trying to reintegrate into society, says Mike Cross, a prison-release mentor for Washington County. Cross serves as pastor at Free on the Outside, a small, adults-only Oregon City worship for sex offenders and other ex-convicts — more typical of the kind of religious service available to sex offenders. Having Light My Way, a large, diverse church full of families, invite in sex offenders represents a crucial breakthrough, according to Cross.

“When you feel rejected and unaccepted by the community and world and you find a place where it’s OK to be you, it changes your life,” Cross says. “You don’t have to lie and cover up. You can learn from your mistake and move on.

“It’s the difference between some of these men ending up homeless and addicted or re-integrating into society,” Cross says.

And that’s precisely why Sonrise started Light My Way, says James Gleason, the church’s lead pastor.

“People didn’t want ‘those people,’” Gleason says. “We have friends, they are panicked by ‘those people.’”

But in Gleason’s view, if Light My Way can provide salvation for even a few sex offenders, it helps protect us all. “We can bring them into the light and get them into the community,” he says. “If we shove them into the darkness, that’s where they are more likely to re-offend.”

And salvation can become a two-way street. According to Gleason, about a third of the people attending the Light My Way service have never been in prison. They are Sonrise congregants “so committed to serving that population that they have decided to make that their church.”

Amanda Hill of Aloha shares whats on her mind during mealtime before church service at Sonrise in Hillsboro.

Security challenges

In the church foyer, a volunteer is collecting and stamping blue slips of paper from approximately 40 men and women, putting them into a stack to be held by Light My Way’s pastor Clifford Jones. Around 6:30 p.m., when the worship is over, Jones will consult with his security volunteers and make sure all those coming from the Washington County Corrections Center did, in fact, remain in services.

Bennett, a security volunteer, says the church has instituted a more professional approach to security since Jones arrived.

Neighbors who live near the church have objected to the ministry, though not as strenuously now as when Light My Way was first proposed, says Ken Rolfe, parole and probation supervisor for the Washington County Corrections Center. More important, Rolfe says, nobody from the neighborhood has reported a problem with the Light My Way congregants in the 11 years Sonrise has offered the services.

Bennett says a few internal incidents in the past made it clear that security needed to be “beefed up.” A few inmates from the Corrections Center tried to use the Light My Way services to arrange conjugal visits with wives or girlfriends, sneaking off to quiet corners of the church during services. At the end of services the church offers free clothing to congregants. Wives and girlfriends who meet up with men from the corrections center have been known to supply drugs to their partners during services. The inmates then hide the drugs in the mounds of donated clothing they take back to the corrections center.

Ministering over food

While security is collecting the slips, Jones is in a church meeting room with about 20 volunteers who will help him during the dinner and service. The dinner is served buffet style, with visitors eating at large round tables. Your job, Jones tells the volunteers, is to build relationships. Sit down with the guests. Ask questions. Talk about your life.

One volunteer says he finds it hard to join in when the convicts are engaged in inappropriate conversations.

“Keep it real,” Jones advises. This dinner, more than the service, he says, is the most important part of the ministry. “Relationships build ministry,” he says.

Keeping it real comes naturally for Jones, who arrived at Sonrise a year ago from the notorious Angola Corrections Facility in Louisiana. Jones became a preacher at Angola while he was serving what was for all intents a life sentence.

Ironically, while security has been beefed up over the past year, Jones says when he arrived he found church volunteers were occasionally too harsh. If an inmate arrived from the corrections center and wanted to put his arm around his girlfriend at the Light My Way services, security might interrupt. Jones says part of his role has been creating an atmosphere that feels less institutional and more comfortable to the convicts.

On this Sunday, Jones signs his name to all but one of the blue slips as the corrections center inmates collect their passes and head toward the front exit. This week, Jones’ volunteers tell him, one of the men who arrived and turned in a slip disappeared during services. On Tuesday — Monday being a holiday — Jones will call Rolfe and report the AWOL convict.

Jones says Light My Way provides a critical education component — for Sonrise congregants and people in the neighboring community. “People are scared of ex-offenders, and people are scared of sex offenders,” he says. “People put different degrees on sin. People have this concern that one sin is worse than others, and God doesn’t see it that way.”

Pastor Clifford Jones leads a worship service for ex-convicts at Sonrise Church on a recent Sunday.

Inspiring others

Jones says ministers around the country call him, asking how they could duplicate Light My Way. But none have been able to, so far, because the ministers are overly concerned about public opinion and the logistics of having sex offenders at their churches when children might be around, he says.

That only increases the importance of Light My Way, according to Jones. “God is trying to use this as a beacon light to show the country that this is his heart,” he says.

Sonrise’s ministry is especially remarkable given the times, says the Rev. Steven D. Martin, director of communications and development for the National Council of Churches. Churches have thought a lot more about security after the shooting that left nine dead at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., last year. “We suddenly saw this rush to secure church facilities,” Martin says. Some churches have been debating allowing guns at services. Greater inclusiveness has not been part of their agenda, he observes.

“(Sonrise) is embracing the bad guys, which is a very biblical mandate,” says Martin, a former United Methodist minister. “I’ve never heard of anyone going to that length to embrace those who look and act differently from the normal church crowd.”

Is congregation overdoing security?

That length is too far, says Stephen Richards a professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh who co-authored “Behind Bars.” Richards, who served time in nine federal prisons on drug charges prior to his academic career, says the security measures taken at Sonrise help perpetuate the stigma confronting sex offenders, most of whom are not pedophiles.

“It’s insulting,” Richards says. “Sex offenders are the pariahs of our society. They are treated like they are immoral. The fact of the matter is most sex offenders are psychologically normal. ... When they’ve completed their prison sentence and their probation and parole they should be treated like everyone else. That’s what churches should demand.”

Richards would do away with tight security even for the prisoners coming over from the Washington County Corrections facility.

“People in that church need to understand that people coming from the corrections center are no more dangerous than the rest of the people in their congregation. In fact, they are probably less dangerous because they know what can happen if they cross the line,” he says.

Sonrise pastor Gleason says his church is so large it needs security for all its services.

Parole and probation supervisor Rolfe is convinced that all the embracing — with the security — is having the desired effect of reducing recidivism among prisoners at the corrections center who attend Light My Way services.

“It absolutely is,” Rolfe says. “I know of people who have really turned their lives around, and Sonrise Church has been a big component in that process.”


Pastor Clifford Jones spent years in prison in Louisiana before finding Jesus.

Inmate’s faith takes him from prison to pastor

When Pastor Clifford Jones takes his Sunday afternoon pulpit at Sonrise Church, he looks out on a congregation of familiar faces.

But to an outsider, it may not look or sound like it.

Jones is a Southern black man through and through, New Orleans born and raised. His congregation in Hillsboro is almost exclusively white.

Jones is Southern Baptist by background and Sonrise is Conservative Baptist. Jones occasionally has to badger his worshipers for the more vocal response to which he grew accustomed in Louisiana churches.

“In the South I do more preaching, and here I do more teaching,” Jones says.

But Light My Way services are first and foremost for those who strayed. Convicts and ex-convicts. And that is a path Jones knows well. On the heels of a hardscrabble life that started in the public housing projects and juvenile facilities of New Orleans, Jones turned to crime and eventually was sentenced, after an armed robbery, to 50 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola with no chance of early release. It was intended to be a life sentence in one of the nation’s most brutal corrections facilities, he says.

How he ended up in Hillsboro is a bit of a mystery, even to Jones. He says he was walking in the Angola prison yard one day when he passed under a tree and God spoke to him with a deal. “Boy, take care of my business and I’ll take care of yours,” Jones recalls.

Jones began studying at a bible college that had been set up in Angola, earning a four-year degree. Next, he began preaching, first in the prison to “men who would make Charlie Manson look like a Boy Scout.” After he had served 12 years of his sentence, he received a letter from the Court of Appeals vacating his sentence, but requiring him to serve two and a half years more. He remains on parole for two more years.

After his release, Jones preached both inside Angola and outside, until Sonrise Church came calling. A ministry that serves criminals and sex offenders, though in a place completely unfamiliar, sounded like a calling.

“I’ve been forgiven a lot,” Jones says. “I’ve got a lot to praise God for.”

Sure, Oregon is unfamiliar in many ways, Jones says. So much the better.

“God brought me out of my comfort zone for another mission.”