Ministry Today – Serving and empowering church leaders

Two thousand years ago Jesus reached out to what was then society's most stigmatized people group: lepers. Today South Florida pastor Richard Witherow is mimicking Christ by providing a group of modern-day lepers—sex offenders—healing and a place to live. It's not a popular move.

In January, Witherow created Miracle Park, a 24-acre village of one-story houses that sits three miles outside the small farming community of Pahokee, Fla. Having served in prison ministry for more than 30 years, Witherow began not only inviting but actually recruiting those who have been convicted for various sex-related crimes. He preached and distributed pamphlets at nearby prisons, advertising the safe-haven community as a potential "answer to your prayers.”

"People get hysterical when you mention sex offenders," Witherow says. "[But] the ticking time bomb here does not exist."

At least 35 sex offenders now live at Miracle Park and pay $500 each in monthly rent. For those who haven't been able to secure jobs, Witherow finds work for them to do around the complex. Yet his higher purposes for them are found in the small on-site church, in which the ministry director offers classes on such life basics as improving relationships and anger management.

"I don't know where I'd be without it, probably living with my family, but that would be tough," says 34-year-old Louis Aponte, who moved into Miracle Park after serving a nine-year sentence for attempted sexual battery. "Society sees us as lepers, like rejects."

While current laws make it challenging for sex offenders to re-integrate into society (one stipulation mandates they must not live within 1,000 feet of anywhere children gather), often it's the social stigmatization that's equally as difficult. Since forming Miracle Park, Witherow has felt the brunt of this as Pahokee residents have voiced both outrage and concern for the well-being of their children. Recent studies indicate that 5 to 30 percent of sex offenders repeat their crimes—with the chances increasing according the severity of the original crime.

Witherow understands the concerns and knows the risk. In fact, Miracle Park is the culmination of several other attempts to establish such a community in other parts of Florida. In each place, local government eventually thwarted any plans for taking in sex offenders. Yet for now, Witherow can rest assured he is making a difference in the lives of those few others want to touch. [AP, 9/25/09]

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