Illinois Church Offers Ex-Cons Hope—and Purpose

River of Life Family Church offers ministry to help former prisoners get back on their feet.

Hopelessness loomed as one Midwestern man faced losing his mother to Lou Gehrig’s disease.

He was on the verge of losing his purpose—caring for her—and on top of that, his dark past crippled him. An ankle monitor ensured the recently released prisoner would stay put. But he planned to take his life.

But then he decided to call Dar Bryant, the production manager at River of Life Family Church in Alton, Illinois, after seeing a video about the man’s life. Arizona authorities had once targeted Bryant among their 10 most wanted.

Bryant befriended him, sharing Christ’s love, and the man’s life soon turned around.

“He began to see that God did have more planned,” says Bryant, who also serves as co-director of River of Life Prison Ministries.

Few at the church knew Bryant’s story but a long line of congregants with similar experiences met him after his video aired last Easter.

One man, fresh from prison, thanked him, as did mothers and wives of prisoners. “All of a sudden, they felt OK to talk about it,” Bryant says.

Now, the Monday through Friday ministry at the church with average attendance of 1,250 helps “returning citizens” with Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, resumes, food and clothing.

“A lot of times, they don’t have anything but the clothes on their back,” Bryant says.

Parole and probation departments refer people to the ministry, and construction at the church is giving them more room to work with. Church workers mentor recently released citizens through job training and family reconciliation.

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Bryant estimates that the number of workers serving in the ministry, currently around eight, will quadruple in a year.

“This is all under a year old, and it has taken off like a rocket,” Bryant says.

The church improved security long before the prison ministry started, and no one has complained about the new attendees, according to Bryant.

“My heart broke for these people,” he says. “I felt their burden and I wanted to help.”

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