by M. Anthony Davis
When Alphonso Bell and Charles Champion founded Filthy Rags Outreach, a nonprofit dedicated to gang intervention and prevention, their initial goal was to engage fellow inmates in a religious journey towards spiritual growth. The two met at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen where they are both currently incarcerated.
“I really never seen men that came from a gang background making progress towards spirituality and finding themselves,” Bell says. Bell transferred to Stafford Creek Corrections Center, where he and Champion founded Filthy Rags Outreach, from Walla Walla State Penitentiary. He wanted to help inmates get into an atmosphere of spiritual growth and self-discovery.
“So, instead of going to the regular church service, we started going having church on the yard,” Bell explains. “And it wasn’t really ‘church’ because we used a different method of approach. We started asking men things like, ‘How can we lose our life to find our life? And, now, what are we gonna do with our life?’ It’s not just religion. Spirituality gives men structure. Especially in a controlled environment.”
Those spiritual gatherings on the prison yard started back in 2018. Bell and Champion would target former and current gang members and invite them to the meetings. As the number of inmates attending grew, the conversations flourished from personal growth to the intersectionality of life experiences in different neighborhoods. In time, older guys targeted younger guys, and the group started making connections to gang members outside of the prison system.
Today, Filthy Rags Outreach has expanded to offer more services to incarcerated men and outreach opportunities to combat gang violence and disrupt gang life on the outside. Their meetings have grown, both in and out of Stafford Creek. On the inside, they partnered with a minister and worked with the prison chaplain to get an official space for their meetings. On the outside, they host meetings with Sons and Daughters of Thunder Ministries in Tacoma, on Hilltop, on the first and third Saturday of every month. These meetings are structured the same way meetings are on the inside, and members of Filthy Rags Outreach who are incarcerated are able to phone into the in-person meetings in Tacoma.
“We use the influence of men that have done 20 years, 25 years, or had life in prison but got released; we use some of those men as instruments to bring others into that meeting place,” says Bell. “I realized that in the gang lifestyle, people don’t just join gangs, they join people. So, we started having these spiritual conversations, but hope to build a social stability within our community.”
An integral component to the work Filthy Rags Outreach does to support inmates is assisting soon-to-be-released men with finding housing and support on the outside. Robert Hampton, a Filthy Rags Outreach member who is currently serving time in Stafford Creek, has spearheaded the organization’s work toward supporting successful reentry for newly released inmates. This includes organizing a network of community members to assist inmates with getting State-issued ID cards and connections to housing and additional services to ensure a smooth transition out of prison.
“If a guy’s going to get released, and we know he’s going to get released, the problem that we have in prison is that most of these guys don’t have anywhere to go,” Hampton says. He also explains that the Department of Corrections policy is to release inmates in the location where they committed their crime. The problem, Hampton points out, is that guys have often burnt bridges in these places, or have no real connection there. And if they are forced to wait on the Department of Corrections to issue them a housing voucher, the process will extend past the inmates’ expected release date, and they end up doing extra time in prison.
“The public doesn’t know, but this happens more often than not,” Hampton says of guys missing expected release dates while waiting on housing vouchers. “And then, you also have the guys that don’t have any money. They will have $40 in gate money [from the prison], they don’t have any resources, they got no place to go, they got nothing to eat. So, we have to work with a lot of people that we know out there on the streets that will help these people out.”
While Filthy Rags Outreach is currently only providing these services to men, their plan is to continue gathering resources and expand these services to women in the future. Hampton hopes that soon, the organization will have ownership of a building where they can provide housing, food, and resources for newly released inmates.
One of the unique aspects of Filthy Rags Outreach is their dedication to storytelling. The meetings, both inside and outside, have an element of testimony, but their website hosts a blog and podcast where members share their stories, post inspirational articles, discuss their spirituality through testimony and religious scriptures, and allow space for inmates to share their own stories and display their creativity.
For Champion, his spirituality is what he believes saved his life. When he was arrested at age 18, for the murder of a police officer, he spent four years in a County jail in “the hole.” He was only allowed one hour out of his cell each day, and sometimes he didn’t receive his hour. During these years, while facing the death penalty, Champion formed a relationship with God and discovered that his life was worth saving.
“On one hand it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. But, on the other hand, it was the best thing that ever happened to me too, because it gave me an opportunity. Being in the hole like that, where I’m in the cell by myself, I’ve got no TV and got none of my homeboys around me. I ain’t got no distractions … And that gave me the opportunity to really assess and analyze my life.”
Champion, who did not grow up in the church, turned to God. He had an aunt who instructed him to cry out to God, and he did. Since that moment, Champion realized his life’s purpose, and now his connection to the street, is rooted in his ability to communicate the gospel to men who are still tied to gang life and his efforts to turn gang members away from the streets.
He tells his personal story in this Filthy Rags blog post concluding with an expression of “deep remorse and sorrow” to the family of the police officer.
“I’ve always been consistent in my relationship with God, because I appreciate what he did for me,” Champion says. “So, people that see my transformation, they know that it’s real, and they respect it. I’m able to communicate the gospel to the guys that come from all walks of life in a way that they have never heard of before. I’m able to communicate the gospel in a way that they’re able to relate to and connect to. Just like Jesus, when He spoke parables to the people, He used modern day circumstances and situations to communicate spiritual truths to the people. I understand what that looks like. So, I’m able to use modern day circumstances, language, and situations that communicate to the spirits and souls of the people.”
M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.
📸 Featured Image: Pastor Harold Lennett of Sons and Daughters of Thunder Ministries and Filthy Rags Outreach places his hand on a bible as he preaches to other members of the church in Tacoma in December. (Photo: Matt Mills McKnight)
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