"I Go to Prepare a Place for You"Jim Blum, founder of My Father's House, discusses his time in prison, his conversion, and his encounter with Communion and Liberation.
The following is an interview with Jim Blum, founder of My Father’s House, a community home for men transitioning out of the prison system. Before founding My Father’s House, Jim spent 20 years in prison, during which he experienced a deep religious conversion. His time in prison ultimately led him to a desire to help men, like himself, reenter society, offering the kind of support that only a caring human companionship can provide. The interview was conducted by Jonathan Ghaly, a member of the CL community in Colorado who met Jim while he was still in prison.
What happened during your time in prison?
Prison was a shock to me and made me cry out to God. Over time I began to pray and eventually to go to Church. It was a time of great spiritual growth for me. I spent a lot of time talking to other men, learning about them, but also learning about myself. Basically, I had a chance to grow up.
Can you share a little about your conversion experience?
I was born to a Catholic family, but when I was young my parents divorced, and we stopped going to church. I eventually wound up in public schools and became very secular and focused on myself. I pursued a lifestyle that led to sin and eventually crime. But when I got to prison, I began to ask myself the big questions of life. Why am I here? What does God have planned for me? I always believed in God, I just didn't have a place for Him in my life. In prison I began to read the Bible, ironically to figure out how to disprove it. But reading it made a Christian out of me. I made a promise to God to live a different kind of life and follow His ways, and I started to go to church in prison.
My grandfather, who was a very devout man, was writing to me at the time, and when I began to ask him questions that he didn't have answers to he started sending me books. He eventually set up an account at a local bookstore and told them to send me anything I wanted. I started reading ten, fifteen, twenty books a month. I studied history and biographies, apologetics and theology. Eventually I earned my Master's degree in Theology through online correspondence courses at Catholic Distance University in West Virginia. I also began to teach others about the faith. In the end I was teaching RCIA and I stood as the sponsor for five men. I also lived in a faith pod for the last five years. I started out as a student but soon became a mentor. I found it very rewarding, and it was a way for me to work through my own questions and issues.
How did you meet your friends in Communion and Liberation?
I have a cousin from Germany who asked me if there was anything he could do to help me. I was studying German on my own and had read about Communion and Liberation. I wanted to kill two birds with one stone, learn more about CL and learn German, so I asked him to get me a subscription to the Traces in German. I would sit at my desk with that magazine and my dictionary and try to decipher it, but that didn’t work very well. So, I decided to write to the CL office in New York and ask if they would send me a subscription to Traces for free so that I could have the two magazines side by side and figure out what the articles were saying.
Some months later I received a letter from you saying that Traces was on the way and that you wanted to come and visit. In fact, you said there were about 20 people that wanted to visit. Honestly, it didn't occur to me that you would drive three and a half hours to visit someone you’d never met. We started to write back and forth, and ultimately the chaplain helped make it possible to get the CL folks on my visiting list. The very first time that you came they called me for a visit, and I thought maybe some terrible thing had happened and my family had come to tell me about it. I got to the visiting room and all the CL people were there waving at me. At the end of the of the visit Lorenzo said, "We'd like to come back on a regular basis.” When you left that day, I went back to my cell house and I told the guard what had happened, and he was just blown away. He’d never heard of such a thing. I went back to the unit and I told the guys in the unit about it. Everybody was just taken aback. Over the next three years or so the CL folks would come to visit about every four to six weeks, and we developed a friendship. It's been a great friendship for me over the years.
How was the idea to open My Father's House born?
While I was in prison, I spent a lot of time talking to my cellmates and pod mates, and I always wanted to find a way to help them and learn more about myself. What I saw in the men around me was that they were intelligent men, but not necessarily emotionally mature or self-aware. They also lacked communication skills, the ability to interact in regular social situations, to process what other people were thinking and feeling. Many didn't empathize well. As I observed this it occurred to me that the reason men wound up leaving prison and coming back was that they couldn't find a house or make the logistics of life work. They couldn't figure out how to work relationships. They didn’t know how to have good relationships with their parole officer, their boss, their mother, their families, their girlfriends, their kids, and so on. As a result, they continued to fail. I tried to help guys process this fact and learn to empathize with others, to think about why people did the things they did, what motivated them.
When I got out of prison it was a great relief for me, but suddenly I had lost all of that communication with men and I didn't have anybody to talk to. I had a great deal of support from my own family and CL friends, but I didn't have anybody to talk to, to process this stuff with like when I was in prison and I missed that. Part of it was that I was looking for some way I could continue to help others. I received so much help from my family, financial help, a place to live and more, but the most important thing was the emotional support. They helped me make decisions and process my feelings. They helped me think through problems and motivated me to move forward with my life. I also had help from friends in CL.
Many men in prison don't have that kind of help. Either they don't have families, or their families won't or can’t give them that kind of support. My idea for founding My Father's House wasn’t just to provide housing or logistical help, but to provide a community of support where men continue to learn how to socialize and grow emotionally and find a safe place to live.
The name My Father's House comes from John 14:2 where Christ says, "In my Father's house there are many rooms and I go to prepare a place for you." We wanted to prepare a place for these men to be successful, to move forward and find fulfillment, to find happiness and a sense of peace and joy in their lives. The way to do that is to provide really strong community support so they can grow. In My Father's House there is the opportunity for men to find housing, which is very difficult for men on parole or coming out of parole, especially if they don't have families or financial assistance. But the real purpose of the community is to provide a safe emotional context where men can learn how to become socialized and to communicate.
What were the main obstacles you faced in getting My Father's House started?
In the beginning everybody thought it was a good idea, but then they saw me and said, “You're still on parole. You haven't even figured out your own life! How are you going to help these other guys?” One of the first obstacles was to get my parole officer and treatment provider to buy in. I think that they were interested because they wanted me to succeed. They subsequently told me they really didn’t think it would work, so they were amazed to see it actually happen. I've had three different parole officers in my time and all of them were very supportive.
Another obstacle was finding the money. I was able to get my sister and brother-in-law to loan me the money for the down payment, co-sign the loan with me so that I could purchase the house. The house needed a lot of work too. My family helped to get donations of furniture, dishes, pots and pans and everything we needed to make My Father's House a home. It was very important to us to provide a home where a man can be himself. There were also logistical obstacles, like finding a house within my price range, in the right place in terms of the parole jurisdiction and the laws that pertain to where people can live together. But I didn't really think of those things as obstacles. I talked with friends who were experts in those areas, and they helped me. We moved forward that way.
How has the experience of My Father's House helped the men living there?
The men come from different backgrounds. We've had men who grew up on the streets and other men were middle class kids who wound up committing crimes. One gentleman was a Marine, a veteran of Desert Storm. We've had other men who were very educated and successful in their careers before they committed their crimes. They're all trying to find a way to live out their lives in a way that fulfills the longing placed in them by God, whether they recognize it as a desire for Him or not. Really that's what we all want at our core. The men may think that they're all very different, but really, they're all looking for the same thing, to be whole.
We've had eight men live in the House so far; four of those men have found new places to go. We've had three men move out and get their own apartments. One man needed more structure than we could offer him, so he's moved on to a much more structured program where he can get the help he needs. The other men have gone back to school or on to new careers. One man is studying to be an electrician, another started his own janitorial business, another wants to become a web designer. One person was just offered a job as a manager at a local restaurant. The men don’t have problems being successful in that way. It is the emotional, relational component they continue to struggle with and that we continue to help them with, even after they move on from the house. We always want them to feel like they're a part of the community, that they can be in contact with us and can even come back. We have a dinner every Sunday night with the men at the house, or elsewhere, just to sit and have fellowship with one another. We want to help them see that they're worth loving, and that it's okay to be vulnerable in a loving relationship. We want the men who've moved on to come back to those dinners as well and they do. So the community continues to grow even as the men move on.
Tell us about your recent one-year anniversary celebration.
We've been in business for longer than a year, but our first tenant moved in May 30, 2018. We wanted to celebrate the fact that we had a year of history together, so we put together a celebration. We invited all of the men who'd been at the house, but also our volunteers and some local community activists. Even the parole officer who is in charge of the men came and enjoyed the celebration. We had a time to share stories. I interviewed one of the men, a guy who had just moved on and gotten his own apartment, so that people had an opportunity to hear how My Father’s House works. Things are going very well for him. He's been able to reconnect with his family and he has a good job. He talked about some of the joys in his life and also some of the challenges. We also sang, so it was just a beautiful night. Many people came to me afterwards and said that they were moved by the celebration, and that it reminded them of the importance of the human component of parole.
How has helping these men helped you?
I can't even express to you how much it's helped me it. I have always found that the best way to help myself is to help others. I was talking to a man last night who's been out for a little over three months and he's met a woman at his work and wants to date her. I said to him, “Do you think that's wise?” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You need to get yourself stable and into a situation where you're ready to be someone who really has something to offer in a relationship.” He was so touched by our conversation he texted me again this morning and wrote, “I'm going to take your advice and slow down a little bit.” Obviously, he hopes that she will react well and not walk away. But the thing that I learned, is that in order for me to really offer something to these men, or anybody I meet, I need to make sure that I'm focusing on what I need in my life and maintaining my relationship with God. Basically, it makes me a better man and opens me up to a different way of viewing myself. It’s been a great blessing to me.
What are the next steps for my father's house? What are your goals?
First, I’d like to have more opportunities for housing. Right now, we have one home with four bedrooms, which means we can have four men. Men send me applications literally every day, the vast majority of whom I have to turn away for lack of space. There are paroled men sitting in prison today who could get out if they had a place to go. The parole board won't let them out because they won't let them go out homeless.
There are some ministries in the country that have their own businesses and employ people, using it as an opportunity to teach job and socialization skills within the workplace, training men to go out and get good jobs. I’d like for us to be able to do that someday. I would also like for us to do outreach in the prisons by writing letters, entering into relationship with men, maybe even sending volunteers to visit the way the CL people came to visit me. There are many men who don't ever get visits who would benefit greatly from that. Maybe we could start a correspondence course about the faith in the prisons that would help men learn about the love of Christ and how God can change their lives. There are a lot of areas that I'd like to see us go into. But these things take time and honestly, money. I pray to God that in the future the ministry will expand so that we can do these things.
I want to personally thank you because you have been a witness to me since day one. Thank you for your witness Jim.