Angela walked off the Greyhound bus in downtown Los Angeles near skid row with a paper sack of belongings and $200 minus her bus fare that got her there from prison. She was dusty and scared, with nowhere to go and no hope of changing the circumstances that put her in prison in the first place. Everyone she passed on the street knew she had just gotten out of prison, and she tried to avoid their eyes because she knew there were any number of drug dealers and sex traffickers among them ready to relieve her of her $200 in exchange for some kind of coping mechanism or security. Angela was about to become another statistic — another of the majority who come out of the criminal system only to be ushered back in in less than a year.
Except there was one thing that made this time different for Angela. In her purse, she had a letter from Susan Burton of A New Way of Life Reentry Project with a number to call when she arrived. So she called and Susan answered the phone.
“You said to call you when I got off the bus,” Angela said, doubting that anything would really come out of this phone call. “So here I am.”
“Good,” said Susan. “Where are you now?” Angela told her. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” Angela’s life was about to change forever.
The fact that Angela had a number to call when she got off the bus was due to the fact that six times Susan Burton had gotten off that same bus without anyone to call, and six times she cycled right back into prison, until the last time, when she managed to land in a treatment program in Santa Monica that gave her access to the kind of resources she needed all along. Like most of the women who are incarcerated from poor urban African American neighborhoods, Susan never needed to go to prison; she needed treatment for her drug addiction, counseling for the abuse she had received as a child and the grief from the loss of her five-year-old son, killed by a car on her street that had driven her to medicate herself with alcohol and drugs, a peer group to help her stay sober, an advocate in the community to vouch for her character in spite of her criminal record, and a place to stay until she could get a job and her feet on the ground. She got all that and her life took a dramatic turn.
In one short year of working and sacrificially saving, she put away over $12,000, enough to buy a run down, repossessed bungalow in a notoriously rough neighborhood in the Watts district of south Los Angeles that no one — even the bank — wanted. Immediately she set to work preparing it for her many yet-to-be-invited guests. It wasn’t long before Susan was meeting the prison bus herself and bringing home the friends she had made while she was incarcerated. Slowly she began to amass the resources for them that had turned her own life around.
A few Christmases ago, I dressed up as Santa Claus and gave out gifts to dozens of women and their children who were rebuilding their lives because of what Susan created out of the love and determination of her heart. These women were happy, resourceful and just like anyone else who gets a chance to meet Santa — blushing like children. At that time Susan had two houses going. Now there are five, and her non-profit organization, A New Way Of Life (ANWOL) has rehabilitated over a thousand women. Their return to prison rate is a mere 4%.
What happened to Susan is what should happen to all of us when we receive the grace of God. We get forgiven, we get a new life in the Spirit, we find out we have the spiritual resources to make a change in our lives. And as soon as that happens, we want to make those same resources available to everyone. Susan Burton is a testament to Grace Turned Outward.
As Angela found out, no one can ever successfully get out of prison without some sort of support. Two hundred dollars and a bus ride is not it. Having someone there to answer that all-important phone call is making all the difference.
We heard Susan speak this week at a book-signing event celebrating the release of her new book, Becoming Ms. Burton, available on Amazon. Get it. It will inspire you.