Faith-based restorative justice program marks major milestone
June 12, 2012
Bridges to Life impacts more crime victims and offenders each year
HOUSTON — The sense of loss, the rage, the depression, the anxiety; there are too many and yet no words to accurately describe the feelings of those left behind when a loved one has been murdered.
But amidst the grief and shattered lives, some seek to forgive. And John Sage is one such person who eventually chose the path of forgiveness by creating Bridges to Life, a faith-based restorative justice program bringing together victims of crime and offenders. In starting the organization in 1998, five years after the brutal murder of his sister Marilyn Sage Meagher, Sage sought to help people suffering like him and to help stop prisoners from reoffending.
This month, the organization marks a major milestone. Through a network of hundreds of volunteers with a presence in 27 prisons across the state, Bridges to Life will have graduated 15,000 prisoners from its 14-week program. In addition, Sage pointed to studies showing a far lower recidivism rate amongst graduates compared to the national average recidivism rate.
"“At the time, my compelling desire was to help other families not go through what we went through,” said Sage, executive director of Bridges to Life," Sage said. “I really had no idea it would get this big.”
Did you know?The faith-based organization Bridges to Life brings victims of crime and offenders together through a program that draws on the teachings of the Bible and the pain and suffering of victims. By encouraging offenders to take responsibility for their crimes, it is hoped both parties will experience healing.
This year, the organization is counting on 375 volunteers to conduct the program in 27 prisons across the state.
A devout Catholic, Sage said his sister's murder and the subsequent capital murder trial never once shook his faith and instead catapulted him on a painful but spiritual journey that eventually led to Bridges to Life.
Having volunteered with a similar organization (the Sycamore Tree Project), Sage went on to develop his own program for prisoners that involves two-hour weekly sessions, incorporating confession, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and restitution. The idea, he said, was to provide an opportunity for those prisoners who participate to resolve conflict and find inner peace. The other half of the equation was to enlist volunteers, particularly those who had been victims of crime, to conduct the small group sessions.
"I was very skeptical," said Christopher Castillo, whose mother Pilar was murdered in 1991 at her Sharpstown home.
The suspects in the case have never been caught.
After spiraling into a depression that stayed with him for years, Castillo, who lives in Beaumont, Texas, said at first he wasn't interested in volunteering when Sage approached him in 2000. But he realized he needed to do something to help himself and the people who commit crimes.
"I saw I wasn't much different than these men," said Castillo, now the national outreach coordinator for Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a national organization of people who lost love ones through homicide and are against the death penalty.
The power of Bridges to Life is also palpable amongst its graduates.
After spending the best part of 34 years inside a jail for various crimes including burglary and aggravated assault, 56 year-old Darrell Osborne was ready to try something different when he enrolled in the program prior to his release in 2008.
Osborne, who claims to have been sober for five and half years, said he had never considered the impact of his actions and crimes on other people until encountering Bridges to Life.
|Bridges to Life
P.O. Box 570895
Houston, TX 77257-0895
Bridges To Life is always in need of victim and facilitator volunteers to continue to grow and fulfill its mission. Interested volunteers can apply directly online at www.bridgestolife.org. The approval process can take up to two months.
"It gave me a new perspective and showed me how (crimes) affect other people," the Houston resident said. "I promised myself I would never do a crime again after that program."
The same goes for Robert Ceniseros of Lubbock, Texas, released from prison in 2006 after serving three years of a 10-year sentence for manufacturing and delivering a controlled substance.
"My experience was very deep," said Ceniseros, who now shares his story with other prisoners. "It brought things out that were probably hidden deep inside. It's an awesome program."
Sage credits the growth and success of the organization to having a paid staff — 11 people including himself, to the hundreds of volunteers and to friends like Ershel Redd and Philip Burguieres, who supported him and the organization.
"I feel like I'm doing what Christ called me to do," Redd said. "We are helping to facilitate exposing these people to principles and concepts that no one previously in their life has done. We are literally bringing a bridge to a new life."