When David Vernoy embraced a life of drug addiction and crime in his early teens, he never imagined that one day he would use that knowledge to help others escape the lifestyle and transform into followers of Christ. But the 39-year-old Vernoy, a licensed recovery pastor, does exactly that through his Fargo, North Dakota-based halfway house and redemption center, Redemption Road.
Born to a heroin-addicted prostitute, Vernoy's earliest memories are standing on the street corner with his mother as she worked, sitting in rooms watching people shoot up drugs, and scrounging around for food in a house that didn't have any. When he was six, the state stepped in and removed him from his mother and he ended up broken and dysfunctional in a boys' home. In and out of homes and foster care, Vernoy soon dove into the area he was most familiar with: drugs. That choice led to a string of burglaries and arrests and finally a felony charge, which landed him in prison by the age of 24.
Marginally familiar with God -- his grandfather read Bible stories to Vernoy and one of his foster families took him to church -- upon his release from prison at the age of 26, Vernoy asked his probation officer to send him to a Christian treatment center and halfway house.
"I always knew God was the answer because of those seeds planted when I was younger," Vernoy says. During his time at the halfway house he learned about the apostle Paul's dramatic conversion experience, which so moved him that he gave his surrendered his life to Christ. But his identity issues and struggles continued to plague him, and soon he returned to full-blown addiction.
For years, as he cycled between following Christ and relapsing into addiction, he began to attend Willmar Assembly of God. When his mother died of a heroin overdose and he was left to pay the funeral expenses, he sought financial help from the church. Pastor Keith Kerstetter informed him that the church was not a bank, so he wouldn't be receiving a loan, but rather a gift.
That simple message forever changed Vernoy's life. He became serious in his recovery efforts, rededicated his life to Christ, attended the church faithfully, and even went to Minnesota School of Ministry to become licensed.
He met and married, Noelle, 33, also a licensed minister. And he met John W. Henderson, who worked in the AG Minnesota District office in Minneapolis. Henderson heads several prison and recovery ministries, something Vernoy felt called to pursue as his own ministry.
Soon Henderson made introductions and paved the way for Vernoy, his wife, and their two young children to start a Fargo-based halfway house and treatment center for prisoners coming out of the northern North Dakota and western Minnesota prisons. Before Vernoy agreed to move, he wanted to make sure the ministry had the full support of churches in the area.
Pastor Bob A. Ona and other leaders of First Assembly of God in Fargo happily obliged.
"Many people behind bars dream of a better life," Ona says. "They really don't want to be in this repeat cycle that is so damaging to their relationships. But once they get out of the structured life of jail, they don't have a replacement structure so they revert back to old behavior. That's what we want to interrupt."
First Assembly already had a vibrant prison ministry called Fresh Start that included in-jail fellowship, Sunday morning classes, and post-prison recovery programs, from Celebrate Recovery to help overcome addictions on Tuesdays and Life Skills classes on Thursdays. But even with those offerings, the church had no place for ex-convicts to live as they tried to get back on their feet. Vernoy and his ministry began to handle that aspect in a perfect partnership.
A year ago, Vernoy and his family moved to Fargo and now live in one of four Redemption Road homes on the same block. The other three houses offer room and board for men to stay as they transition back into society. For Vernoy, the opportunity to change lives starts from the moment men step outside of prison.
He understands that one of the most vulnerable times in a convict's life is right after he returns to society. So Vernoy, working with the Department of Corrections, personally picks up men released from incarceration and transports them directly to one of Redemption Road's houses, where 16 men live.
At the houses, the men receive 12-step help, participate in weekly house meetings, and attend First Assembly every Sunday morning. In order to remain in ministry housing, they must also sign a contract in which they agree to abstain from drugs and alcohol, have regular drug testing, keep a 10 p.m. curfew, and share in household chores.
Now sober nine years, Vernoy has great hopes for the rest of his life. He envisions leading the ministry to include houses all over the state. Ona believes the vision will become a reality.
"Because of David's past, people relate to him very well," Ona says. "He's experienced deep trouble and God has taken him out. Helping people whose lives have been so badly broken is an investment, because coming out of this lifestyle is a slow process, with a lot of relapses. But David is the perfect example to show that real change is possible."