Adventist Halfway House Fuels Transformation
Cobb, ex-drug dealer, brings home former felons for ministry.
BY ELIZABETH LECHLEITNER, Editorial Assistant, Adventist News Network
n his quiet Gainesville, Florida, neighborhood, Jeffery Cobb is known as the guy who convinced a bunch of former felons to trade their guns for weed whackers, hedge trimmers -- and a whole lot of respect. The crew maintains nearly 200 area lawns every week working for Cobb's Eden Garden Lawn Service.
But the laid-back Cobb doesn't just employ the ex-offenders -- he lives, eats and worships with them at Shelter in the Storm, the transition house he has run since 2001. Cobb says he couldn't be more comfortable; many of them are the same guys with whom he once cut lucrative drug deals and shared prison cells.
"I speak their language. I lived their culture," Cobb says. "Why shouldn't I invite them home?"
Cleveland Houser, who worked in the Tennessee Correctional System for 16 years as a Seventh-day Adventist psychiatric chaplain, says there are plenty of reasons -- fear, busyness and the stigma surrounding former offenders, to name a few. "A lot of churches endorse the idea of transition houses, but frown upon the fruits -- former felons actually showing up at church," Houser says. "Or someone asking a church to start a support group for the families of inmates."
TRANSFORMED LIFE: Jeffery Cobb left a life of $70,000-a-night drug deals to help bring fellow former felons back into society. At Shelter in the Storm, the transition house he has run since 2001, residents learn responsibility by holding down jobs and following budgets. [Photos: Shelter in the Storm/ANN]
Sure, sharing a church pew with a guy out on parole can be unsettling, Houser acknowledges, but that doesn't license church members to shun former felons. "Jesus' last ministry on Earth was to prisoners. He was on 'death row,' you might say, between two thieves and he gave one of them hope."
Hope is what Cobb deals these days.
A former drug addict and felon, Cobb knows life after prison is tough and that the streets are often more welcoming than estranged family members and betrayed friends. With no positive references, he says many former felons find dodging bullets easier than cinching a job. That means most pass time in prison masterminding their next crimes.
That's exactly how Cobb spent more than two decades. "I never thought to quit. I used jail time to think up my next drug deals, because that was the only way I knew to survive once I got back on the street," Cobb says.
His older brother, one of Miami's most notorious drug dealers, introduced the then 15-year-old Cobb to cocaine and crime. Cobb remembers his brother's cohorts were in cahoots with corrupt police officers and judges. "We used to get high together."
Despite the unlikelihood of his arrest, someone -- "maybe God," Cobb says with a laugh -- finally tipped off an honest officer. Cobb landed behind bars at Miami County Jail on charges of selling drugs to students near school property. It wasn't long, he says, before he contracted a typical case of "jailhouse religion."
"I told God, 'If you get me out of here, I'll dedicate my life to you.' Of course I knew I'd go back to the only thing I knew -- I could make $70,000 a night selling drugs. Why would I go out and look for a job?"
He didn't. Cobb violated parole and went back to using his typical $500 of cocaine a day. Three months later, he found himself back in prison.
"Jail isn't a deterrent," Cobb says. "But Jesus is."
While serving time at Gainesville Correctional Institute, Cobb remembers a fellow inmate convinced him to check out a Sabbath worship service offered by a Seventh-day Adventist prison ministries group.
"I told him, 'Church on Saturday? Are you out of your mind?'"
Still, Cobb says the services eventually impressed him to accept Christ. "It was no sudden bright light shining moment, like you hear some people say. I just felt filled with peace and calm and joy."
Cobb describes the transformation as a choice, one he encourages Shelter in the Storm residents to make for themselves. "If you're not ready for Jesus to change your life, you're wasting your time here," Cobb says. "A lot of these guys want to get off the streets, but they can't get jobs. If you don't put them to work, they're going to go right back to the only thing they know."
"This isn't a place where you come and just lay around doing nothing," says Jeffery Hunter, a former resident who now helps manage a local McDonald's restaurant. "You have to come with your mind made up to change."
The men at Shelter in the Storm are not pressured to become Adventists, but what they learn during daily devotions often makes an impression. Cobb says after six months at the house, one resident became an Adventist and took over teaching Sabbath school at the local church. Another, a 55-year-old blues singer, reconnected with his estranged wife after three months at Shelter in the Storm: "The whole family is going to church now."
TRANSFORMING LIVES: A Shelter in the Storm resident trims grass at one of the nearly 200 Gainesville lawns maintained by former felons living at Cobb's transition house. The steady work helps fill the gap left by old habits.
During their year at Shelter in the Storm, Cobb connects each former felon with a local realtor, car salesman and potential employer so that when they leave, they'll have housing, transportation and employment.
Cobb admits the guys are getting a "pretty good deal," but says because they help out around the house, he won't be raising the rent or cutting back on services -- "Some of those guys can cook, man!" he says with a laugh.
Still, Hunter says, transitioning back into society isn't easy. "I let the new guys know what they're up against. These guys have battled drugs and crime for years and have left a lot of hurting people behind. I tell them, 'Don't come out expecting open arms. You're gonna have to work really hard to earn back trust and love, but it's possible.' It's all about giving them hope."
A few months ago, Cobb opened a second transition house, this one in Ocala, about 40 miles south of Gainesville. "Man, I'm having fun," he says. "I'm gonna do this until Jesus comes."