by Ellen C. Warren
You could call Sharon McMurray and Charles Hampton prayer warriors. Their religious roots and associations make it clear that God is a big part of their action plan. They are also the fiercest of warriors in an arena where the odds are stacked against them; helping the formerly incarcerated to find their way to full lives.
Their organization, Table of Saints, began around a huge, old, shiny wooden table. As the story goes, a Bible Study formed by men housed in the Chaney Center in work release programs, started to see members of their group returning to society. Wishing to continue their Bible Study group, (“It seemed like God came into the mix and brought [help],” says Charles) they were aided in finding a home in the basement of Rehoboth Miracle Temple. The men were eventually all reunited. The name was changed from Assembly of the Saints to Table of the Saints as they gathered around the welcoming table.
The exodus began in 2009 and by May of 2010 all twenty original group members had been released and become participants. The Bible Study continued for ten years. A few members left due to circumstances and new members were added including a few former officers from the Chaney Center. Charles Hampton was one of the original members.
Soon, they were noticed by Project Return (Returning Ex-incarcerated People To Urban Realities and Neighborhoods) who asked them to join forces with them. The two organizations have been working together for fourteen years.
In 2014, Table of the Saints opened a residence. The Family House, on Booth and Locust Streets, is a home to six men. “We assist men coming out of prison. We assist men coming out of rehab, struggling with drugs and alcohol. We also assist individuals coming through Project Return, who may have a job and are looking for housing,” explains Hampton. “We provide adequate housing, stable, sober-living housing for previously incarcerated men.” The residents each have their own room, pay rent, and do their own cooking. Presently their ages range from 44 to 74.
Dr. Sharon McMurray has been the Executive Director and C.O.O. of the Family House since its inception. Born and raised in Milwaukee, a graduate of Riverside High School, she studied at several schools including Mount Mary College, Concordia University, and the University of Illinois- Chicago. She’s a Licensed Practicing Therapist as well as holding a Master of Social Work.
After she finished the CSAC (Certified Substance Abuse Counselor) program Sharon fell ill with Lupus. This postponed her PhD. plans for several years, during which she became involved with M.I.C.A.H. (Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope) as a volunteer. After a few years she became the Office and Program Coordinator. “And then, that’s when Charles and the rest of the guys came in for the 11 x 15 program, and that’s how we got to know each other,” says Sharon.
The 11 x 15 Campaign, under the auspices of MICAH and WISDOM (a statewide network, comprised mainly of faith-based organizations) “was a program to cut the prison population in half,” says Charles. “The main goal was to implement other programs like Compassionate Release, make changes in the solitary confinement. They needed to put more money into the Treatment Alternative and Diversions Program, because at the time it was only like a million dollars, and we needed 15. We eventually got 5 million.
“We wanted to bring more awareness to Solitary Confinement because the public eye is really different than what is really going on … You can have a son that’s in there, with mental health issues. He’s on certain medications. They will put him in solitary confinement and won’t even give him his meds. So, he starts bouncing off the wall. And he’s doing this for six months in solitary confinement. When he gets ready to come home, he’ll come home like that … all messed up in the head … So, we had a guy that built a solitary confinement cell, and we brought it to Madison and plopped it right on the steps (of the Capitol). There were over a thousand people there that day. And it helped. They went from one million to five million … We’re just trying to make a difference, trying to make some changes.”
Charles Hampton has first-person knowledge of what it’s like to be a formerly incarcerated person. He had his own problems with drugs and alcohol which led to two prison stays. During his second stay he became closer to the word of God, which changed his perspective. Once he arrived at the Chaney Center, he “got involved with a group of guys that wanted to make a difference in our community because we knew that we were part of the problem. Now we were going to be part of the solution … Fourteen years later, look where we’re at!” Last year Charles earned his associate degree in Substance Abuse Counseling from MATC.
Sharon McMurray had a Preacher for a father and a Social Worker for a mother. “I would say that the thing that made me passionate … was I had two brothers who struggled with addiction. I always said that I wanted to help somebody else to move away from that, try to do whatever I can to help them,” shares Sharon. “I found out that, mostly, it’s about showing the person that you’re there for them, that you believe in them, and treating what is the cause of the abuse … It’s about mental health. There’s a reason why they’re doing this.”
Much of the work of these organizations has been to push for more mental health treatment over more punishment. Not only are the costs of treatment versus incarceration much lower, but the positive outcome spreads into the community. In the words of Sharon, “Trauma not transformed is transferred.”
For the last three years, Table of Saints has held a monthly men’s forum called “Let’s Talk About It.” Composed entirely of men, with a certified mental health professional in the room, “it’s been very successful with men just pouring themselves out,” says Dr. McMurray. A subject is chosen for each session, for example, ‘Why don’t men talk about their feelings?’ ‘The stuff that hurt me’ and ‘Fatherhood’.
“It gives men an opportunity to take a real deep look at themselves … and you find you’re not the only one struggling with the problem. Some men have cried … A lot of what was never dealt with and needs grieving. Looking at your childhood experiences that were never talked about and kept bottled up inside. We teach them to open up and to relieve themselves,” adds Mr. Hampton.
Two devoted change agents. Making a difference. Helping to transform lives.