Reshaping Lives of Ex-Offenders
House of Hope in Gainesville, Florida, ministers to those whose lives have been devastated by crime, drugs, and alcohol. House of Hope provides a nurturing Christ-centered environment for ex-offenders to be assimilated back into society. In the transition, the ministry assists in basic food needs, shelter, spiritual development, employment opportunities, and life-skills training.
The women’s program at House of Hope is led by Jennifer Faye Smith, who individually and collectively mentors women living in quarters on the ministry site. Smith spends at least an hour each week teaching and guiding six residents on a one-on-one basis. She also shares meals with the women and is involved in community activities with them. In addition, the women’s director travels and speaks at churches and in non-Christian settings about crime prevention in the community.
“I take very seriously my sobriety and walk with Christ,” Smith says. “I love to teach residents in the home. We have a strong discipleship emphasis in the Word of God. It’s all about relationship — first with Christ, then with each other. We do life together. We get real.”
House of Hope provides housing, utilities, clothing, and toiletries to the women, who must obtain a job and save money as a step toward self-sufficiency. Residents graduate in six months, but have the option to stay for another six months.
Yet beyond practical skills and help, Smith believes it’s important to demonstrate love and affirmation to those who typically have been judged, punished, discarded, and abandoned.
“Life is hard and full of attacks, especially for the ex-prostitute, drunk, drug addict, dropout, or throwaway who has been told she will never amount to anything,” Smith says. “These women can become who they were originally created to be by unlocking the greatest of God in them. Rejection is painful; full acceptance is powerful.”
On the surface, Smith may seem too good-natured and Pollyannaish to model behavior for those coming out of drug abuse and sexual abuse. Yet her polite interactions, buoyant sense of humor, and ever-present toothy smile belie her own past episodes of surviving drug addiction, homelessness, prostitution, incarceration, and rapes.
Smith grew up as the youngest of seven children in a physically abusive and alcohol-dominated home. She turned into a full-blown addict at 11: drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, eating psychedelic mushrooms, snorting cocaine, and ingesting LSD.
By 13, Smith entered the foster-care system and faced a grim future. At 15, she dropped out of school after eighth grade — she had flunked twice because of extended behavioral suspensions. She moved in with a man twice her age, and drug abuse worsened.
At 19, Smith married someone 18 years older, a man she had known for a month. She gave birth to a healthy son, even though she partied on crystal meth throughout her pregnancy. The marriage quickly ended in divorce.
Again looking for a father figure, Smith married a second husband, one 15 years her senior. That relationship ended at 24. Smith also relinquished her 4-year-old son after her first husband sued for custody.
“I didn’t show up in court because I was high,” she recalls.
For the next eight years Smith lived on the streets of Gainesville, as a crack addict and prostitute. She slept in tents, the woods, on park benches, and in jail cells. Her lengthy rap sheet included dozens of arrests for possession of cocaine, writing bad checks, prostitution, possession of crack, and theft. She sometimes went a week without eating, and her skeletal, 5-foot, 4-inch frame shrank to 80 pounds.
A “sugar daddy” took care of her while she worked the streets, but treated her harshly otherwise, commonly whacking her in the head with his fist or a clothes iron. The man locked her in a closet. While confined, Smith contemplated all the times relatives and judges told her she never would amount to anything. She thought about her failed marriages, and how much of her life she had wasted.
Smith called out to a God she didn’t believe in, saying she wanted to die.
She says God impressed her with the thought, Finally I can use you.
“God delivered me instantly,” Smith says.
Soon afterwards, Smith’s sister urged her to attend The Family Church, where she heard a salvation sermon about forsaking a sinful lifestyle. She ran to the altar to solidify her commitment to the Lord. Members of a small group at church discipled Smith, who read the Bible voraciously and stopped her illicit behaviors cold turkey.
After years of separation, Smith reconnected with her mother, Pearl, who persuaded Jennifer to contact her son, Christopher Dye. Jennifer hadn’t talked to Christopher for six years.
On a subsequent visit to Gainesville, the then 14-year-old Christopher accepted Jesus as Lord at First Assembly of God. In 2007, Christopher’s dad died of cancer and Smith moved to Kentucky to further heal her relationship with her son.
Smith needed, a place to stay, employment, and someone to show faith in her. The Kentucky Ministry Network provided that opportunity.
Even though Kentucky District Superintendent Joseph S. Girdler had started his Christian journey by ministering on the streets and taking in homeless wanderers from time to time, he expressed extreme hesitancy when Smith interviewed for an administrative assistant position in the KYAG Network office. But through extensive discussions, Girdler’s friend and colleague, Stan Holder (KYAG executive secretary/treasurer) convinced him to hire her.
“Jennifer was a wonderful employee who left an indelible impression upon each of us and our Fellowship,” Girdler says. “There was something radiant about her testimony and her passion for her son, who has become a gifted young Christian leader. Jennifer remains a passionate advocate for Christ and His redeeming power.”
Smith began studying for ministry and credentials with the Assemblies of God during her time in the KYAG Network office. She ultimately received ordination in the AG Peninsular Florida District.
Although reluctant at first, Christopher slowly regained trust in his once-negligent mother. Dye says he wouldn’t have moved back in with his mom if his dad hadn’t died.
“The bond between us is stronger,” says Dye, 24. “I don’t know if I could make it today without her.” Dye is the first in Smith’s family not only to graduate from college (in 2014 with a music performance degree from the University of Louisville) but to graduate from high school as well.
Smith is convinced her son has a special calling on his life because she never conceived another baby. Smith has been single her 13 years as a Christian, and she believes she has been able to draw closer to the Lord without a husband. She now ministers to those coming from the streets of Gainesville, the same place where she had such a messed-up life.
In 2012, Smith held her bedridden mother’s hand when Pearl Adams Gallion died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Smith earlier led her mother to salvation in Jesus, and Gallion relinquished bitterness over the beatings she had endured from her former husband. Smith also restored her relationship with her dad, who spent multiple stints in jail because of violence against his wife.
Amazingly, despite her traumatic past, Smith is the picture of health.
“God healed my teeth and my physical scars — and emotional ones, too,” Smith says. “He transformed me inside and out. He lifted me from the ash heap. Without Jesus Christ, we all are in the ash heap.”
Just how much Smith’s life has changed is evident by her role in mothering two children. Smith in 2013 adopted two children, Tristan, a 9-year-old boy and Shelby, a 7-year-old girl.