By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator 

One early evening during late fall, the darkness of night surrounded the St. Vincent de Paul dining room in Baton Rouge, but inside, the dim lights were aided by the bright smiles of the men seated at the tables.  

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Barry Williams, left, enjoys a Thanksgiving meal with Joseph Homes residents, supporters and volunteers. Williams was released one week earlier from Angola after serving 41 years in prison. Photo by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator

 

Clad in dark winter clothes, their eyes, their faces, their shoulders and their demeanor told their stories … even as they verbally shared their journeys that brought them there to the Thanksgiving celebration of Joseph Homes of the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.  

Joseph Homes provides temporary housing for former inmates who are now homeless.  

Joseph Homes resident Marcus Cretian of Arnaudville was released in June from Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson. He told the group about riding the bus one early June morning and talking to a fellow bus rider about trying to find a job.  

Major Smith, another fellow bus rider, overheard the conversation and mentioned a job opening to Cretian. It was a simple gesture, but a life changing one for Cretian, who was so appreciative that he invited Smith to be his guest for the Thanksgiving dinner.  

“At 5 (a.m.) they put you out (of the Bishop Stanely J. Ott homeless shelter) and I went on the bus to see how the city (Baton Rouge) was ran, you know, and I saw Major on the bus (but) I was talking to another guy about a job,” explained Cretian. “That’s when Major said, ‘God told me to tell you, man, to come fill out this application.’ Ever since then I’ve been rolling.”  

From the Bishop Ott Shelter, Cretian moved to Joseph Homes where he would walk to the bus station at 4:30 every morning to get to his job at an industrial company. Six weeks later, he had saved enough money to buy a car.  

“It was a blessing to be reunited with brothers that (had) been in the same situation with me and seeing people doing better … and helping one another,” Cretian stated of the Nov. 15 gathering. “That’s what it’s all about helping: loving on each other and helping somebody to the next level.  

“And most of the guys, when they look at me, I make it look easy, but it wasn’t easy. You just have to stay focused and that’s what I did.”  

Staying focused and staying connected appear to be the main ingredients of success for these returning citizens who are ready for a second chance at doing things right.  

Barry Williams, 58, of Alexandria was released Nov. 8 from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola where he’d spent the last 41 1/2 years. 

“This here (Thanksgiving dinner) makes me feel like I’m free,” said Williams. “Once I stepped on this concrete (outside of Angola), that’s what I always said when I was locked up, if I ever get my feet on that concrete, I’m going to be a nice person.”  

The meal, complete with turkey, ham and all the trimmings, was prepared by offenders at the State Police Inmate Barracks and served by Joseph Homes residents or former residents. It’s an annual event that is full of smiles, hope and thanksgiving.  

“It’s just a time for them to share and so many of them that were here tonight, this is their first free Thanksgiving in decades and decades,” emphasized Linda Fjeldsjo, coordinator of Joseph Homes. “And that’s why there’s that camaraderie. It’s a very special time for them.” 

For the men, there was something else: a bond that was as strong as family because of time spent behind bars. During the introductions, former Angola prisoner Robert Brown, also known as Rodan, explained why he still comes around.  

“I did 50 years in Angola,” said Brown. “Whenever I can, I usually hang around and try to help the fellows out. A lot of them wasn’t as fortunate as I was. (When) I came home, I had somebody to come home to.”  

Now, this group of men is coming home to each other. And, that could be just the support and love that will help Williams stay positive. It was certainly a surprise when he walked into the dining room to see so many familiar faces from a familiar journey.  

“It was a shock, it really was strange,” said Williams. “I figured there were going to (be) people (from) the streets. I didn’t figure it was going to be a bunch of people I (already) know, you see what I’m saying? Now, I’m more comfortable, being around the people that I knew for 40 years. Even if they give you 25 years, 30 (years), 15 (years) … I know those people, you heard me?”