DALLAS – Criminal justice reform appears to be one of the few topics on which people can find consensus in today's increasingly polarized climate.
It even brought together one of America's leading pastors and the chief executive of one of the country's largest companies with a shared goal of encouraging businesses to hire rehabilitated men and women coming out of prison.
On the surface, communications giant AT&T and the Dallas-based Potter's House megachurch don't seem to have much in common, besides sharing a home base in Texas's third most-populous city.
But a recent meeting hosted by a Potter's House ministry placed church pastors right alongside corporate CEOs with a challenge to transform communities and change lives.
"When the floods came in Houston, we were there. In Haiti, we were there. In South America, we were there," said Potter's House pastor, Bishop T.D. Jakes concerning recent humanitarian responses. "You'd be surprised what a bunch of church folk can do."
Jakes made his remarks at a luncheon to support the Texas Offenders Reentry Initiative, a church program to help former inmates.
Since its founding in 2005, TORI has assisted more than 20,000 people with housing, employment, and helping them reintegrate back into society.
When Jakes met AT&T's Randall Stephenson two years ago, he pressed the executive to find solutions to commonplace obstacles ex-offenders encounter upon release. AT&T responded with a pilot program to help qualified, formerly incarcerated prisoners find employment at one of their Dallas-area call centers.
Ultimately, these types of pilot programs benefit people like Chantell Traylor, who went through the TORI program and eventually found employment with health care and retirement benefits.
"A lot of people believe that once you make a mistake, that's it," Traylor explained. "But to know that somebody knew that that was just what it was: a mistake. And to say, 'Ok, I'm going to give you another chance to get it right.' And here I am, again, today saying I am a success story. I made it."
Although AT&T works closely with Jakes' initiative to find eligible job candidates, the pastor voiced frustration over what he deems as a general feeling of religious discrimination from the business world. He noted companies seem willing to partner with every community except for communities of faith.
"Why would you get to the faith community and act like there is something so dreadful about my faith that I don't deserve to be treated equally, especially when my results of my program are better?" Jakes asked, pointing to TORI's impressive 11% recidivism rate when compared to 50% nationally.
"I would like to see many of my peers and leaders in the business community, that here in this room, walk out of here and go 'You know what? It shouldn't be taboo to interact with the faith-based community and figure out how we can make a difference in our communities by working together," he said.
About 900 people attended the TORI luncheon which featured the fireside chat between Stephenson and Jakes. Their goal was to encourage business, government, community, and faith leaders to be the bridge to offer second chances and to replicate this program across the country.