Project RETURN

Stay Current with the latest Project RETURN News & Events

9th Annual Golf Outing
Spring 2017 Newsletter

Winter 2016 Newsletter
36th Annual Celebrate the Return
Summer 2016 Newsletter
Spring 2016 Newsletter

Winter 2015 Newsletter
Milwaukee Film Festival Imperial Dreams
35th Annual Celebrate the Return
Summer 2015 Newsletter
Spring 2015 Newsletter

34th Annual Celebrate the Return
Board Member Profile: Elijah O'Neal
Rev. Joseph Ellwanger publishes: Strength for the Struggle
Board Member Profile: Rodney Evans

9th Annual Golf Outing

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Spring 2017 Newsletter

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Winter 2016 Newsletter

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36th Annual Celebrate the Return


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Spring 2016 Newsletter

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Winter 2015 Newsletter

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Milwaukee Film Festival: Imperial Dreams


35th Annual Celebrate the Return

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Summer 2015 Newsletter

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Spring 2015 Newsletter

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Marquette University Internship Program 2014/15

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34th Annual Celebrate the Return

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Board Member Profile: Elijah O'Neal

Project RETURN is celebrating 34 years of ministry this year, but we may not have made it past the first few years without the vision of a forward-thinking Board of Directors in 1981. Today two original members of the Board of Directors still serve on this vision casting body: Pastor Joseph Ellwanger and Elijah O’Neal.

Elijah is originally from Peoria, IL. He moved to Milwaukee around 1962 or 1963. He was lured to Milwaukee by employment and educational opportunities. Unfortunately, Elijah was sentenced and convicted of a felony early in his stay in Wisconsin. After a period of incarceration, Elijah vowed to become a positive member of the community. He received his Associates Degree in Industrial Supervision at Milwaukee Area Technical College. Soon, he was hired by Bucyrus Erie on Milwaukee’s south side.

“After I was released from prison I was working at Bucyrus Erie. After working there for two years I was promoted into a supervisor position, the first African American supervisor in production for the company. I was introduced to a woman named Jan Cummings while I was on parole. Jan found out I was working for Bucyrus Erie as a supervisor. She asked if she could refer some individuals on parole to me for employment and mentoring. I agreed and that began my work in prison ministry. I became involved with the Benedict Center. After a while a co-worker of mine Earl Anderson and I were talking about organizations in Milwaukee. He introduced me to Priscilla Franklin who was a member of Cross Lutheran Church. She spoke about an initiative that was beginning at Cross Lutheran Church called Project RETURN.”

Elijah had made a vow to himself to do whatever he could to help his community. He recognized first-hand the struggles of re-entry. He provided vision of how an organization can help mentor a person returning from incarceration. He has never shied away from doing what he believes is right.

“I have worked with a few men through the years, providing a mentoring relationship for them. The young men came to me from family, church groups, community based organizations. One individual I worked with, Anthony, came to me from his aunt when he was 17 or 18 years old. Anthony was a handful. His parents were separated. He was staying with his mother when I came to know him. It took a little while, but he did mellow out a bit. At that point I was able to get him a job as a chipper. I have known Anthony for over 30 years now. He is now an ordained pastor and I could not be prouder of him.”

Elijah has taught us so much at Project RETURN and has personally mentored hundreds of men through the years. Asked why he felt called to this work his answer was, as is everything Elijah does, straight to the point. “Society too often thinks incarceration is the answer to corrective behavior. I felt I was called to offer some of my insights and life lessons to someone else, to help them achieve their goals.”

Rev. Joseph Ellwanger publishes autobiographical memoir:
“Strength for the Struggle”

by Rev. Mark Thompson

With these words, Pastor Joe calls all of us to continue the struggle of fighting what the Apostle Paul calls “the principalities and powers” of this world. Most who read this Project RETURN newsletter are, of course, familiar with Rev. Joseph Ellwanger. As the longtime pastor of Cross Lutheran in Milwaukee, Pastor Joe helped begin the organization and continues to be an integral part of the on-going ministry and success of Project RETURN. The story and ministry of Project RETURN is featured prominently in the book (pg 206-221).

This book is more than a walk through history. It is a blueprint for continuing to engage the principalities and powers of today through community organizing, partnerships and always a bold faith in Jesus and God. Given the continued disproportionate incarceration of African American men throughout the United States, Pastor Joe’s call to action throughout the book ring loud and clear today. The description of the background to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail is as relevant for white congregations and Christians given the issues of today as it was in 1963:

I know that for some congregations and pastors, the quietism and silence came from a failure to empathize with African Americans, a failure to see how deep and profound a hurt it truly was for an African American man . . . to be called “boy” with all the other daily indignities (pg 280).

It remains difficult today for many of the same congregations in suburban Milwaukee, and elsewhere in the United States, to empathize with incarcerated individuals or to acknowledge the sin of racism and white privilege permeates every social institution and often guides foreign military policy.

I have often sat at tables with Pastor Joe, knowing that if he was putting his energy in a certain cause, it was worthwhile indeed. Many of us are grateful for the energy he and his wife Joyce put into this book, and into a life of faith, passion and justice. Every individual and congregation seeking to follow Jesus should engage this book in order to find strength for today’s struggles.

“Strength for the Struggle” is published by Henschel Haus Publishing, Inc., and can be purchased online at henschelhausbooks.com. When ordering at checkout, enter the code RET to have $2.00 of your purchase donated to Project RETURN.

Board Member Profile: Rodney Evans

Continuing the newsletter series started last quarter, this quarter’s Board Member Profile is Board President Rodney Evans.

Rodney is originally from Cassopolis, MI. At a very young age his father died. A little while later his mother remarried and moved the family to Milwaukee where his stepfather had just been hired as the pastor of a church. Unfortunately, Rodney had his run-ins with the law and at the age of 17 he was incarcerated for a non-violent offense. This would lead to a pattern of recidivism over the next 21 years. Every time Rodney got close to completing his probation he would be revocated due to a violation.

In 2004 Rodney was referred to Project RETURN by his probation officer for a 12 week AODA Treatment Group. He found the groups, facilitated by Clem Richardson, to be inspirational. He completed his 12 week program and continued to attend groups for the next two-plus years. After attending groups regularly for so long, Clem and other staff at Project RETURN encouraged Rodney to become more active in the community. Rodney began speaking to local organizations and church groups about his experiences being incarcerated and what he needed to make a successful re-entry. In 2010, Rodney was invited to attend a board meeting for Project RETURN with a group of potential new board members. Rodney agreed to join the board. He has served as the president for the last two years.

“Because of my background, I spent a lot of time destroying and hurting,” Rodney said when being interviewed for this article. “Today I have the opportunity to clean up and heal, both on the outside and inside. My past helps me to see the truth. In the past I made decisions on lies, now I make decisions on the truths I see.”

“My hopes are that we accomplish being a force in the social justice arena in our city, our prisons…being a force for justice in our community. That is my long term goal. Short term goal for Project RETURN is to increase the number of people we reach in our assisting.”

Under Rodney leadership Project RETURN is working toward these goals and making a difference every day.

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