About 17 years ago, Brad Hoheisel felt his life spinning out of control. A series of bad choices landed him in the Morrison County Jail in Little Falls. That’s when he was given the opportunity to attend a REC retreat.
REC, which stands for Residents Encounter Christ, is a two-day retreat for jail or prison residents designed to give them a chance to learn about Christ and how he can change their lives.
“I was hopeless,” Hoheisel said. “I knew about God but I certainly didn’t know Jesus. I figured I would try anything that might help.”
It was there that he met Darrell and Bev Welle, this year’s recipients of the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association State Volunteers of the Year award.
“They were the REC coordinators when I was there,” Hoheisel said. “Now they are part of my life and my wife’s life. Coming from where I came from, well, they are the most kind and loving people I have ever met.”
A growing faith
The Welles are lifelong members of Holy Family Parish in Belle Prairie, which is also home to the Central Minnesota TEC Center. TEC, which stands for Together Encountering Christ, another retreat-based ministry, helped deepen the couple’s relationship with Christ.
“The experience we first had at TEC made us open to the Holy Spirit to give us a willingness to say yes to other ministries,” Bev said. “That’s where our faith grew. That’s what gave us the spiritual fortitude to be able to do this type of volunteering.”
Bev was the first of the two to get her feet wet in jail ministry. She was invited to participate in the beginnings of the REC program started by Jim and Pat Stroot 25 years ago at the former juvenile detention center in Sauk Centre.
Darrell wasn’t involved with the jail ministry at first.
“I didn’t see any good reason to go into a jail if I didn’t have to,” Darrell said. “I remember making the comment that maybe if they had one in my hometown, I might help. Three weeks later, they announced the first REC in Morrison County. So I knew I was convicted and I went.
“It hooked me right away,” he said. “I went back and did a second one. And on the third one, Jim and Pat asked us if we would be coordinators for Morrison County REC. I said no way! We were busy with our family, we had three teenagers. There’s no way we could do that,” he recalled.
But the Holy Spirit had other ideas and the Welles decided to try it.
“And we’re still trying it now,” Darrell said, more than 20 years and 43 REC retreats later.
Experiencing God’s love
REC retreats are open to all faiths and those with no faith affiliation, but the REC team always maintains that it is a Catholic retreat based on the Paschal Mystery of dying, rising and going forth. They never know how many will come ahead of time, but an average weekend might involve around 25 residents.
“We tell people when they come in, ‘You’re going to get to know Jesus this weekend but he was here before we got here and he’ll be here when we leave,’” Bev said. “We just want them to experience God’s love and grace and forgiveness.”
The Welles primarily act as liaisons between the jail and the REC team, which consists of about 30 volunteers.
“Everyone has been very supportive, from the sheriff to the administration to the correctional officers. They see the difference in the residents before the weekend and after the weekend. They’ve seen a lot of the residents change their lives,” Bev said.
Lieutenant Scott MacKissock, administrator of the Morrison County Jail, nominated the Welles for the award, which they received at the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association Jail Administrators Conference Sept. 14.
“The Morrison County Jail is grateful for Darrell and Bev Welle for their commitment to the community and to the inmates that are housed here,” MacKissock wrote in his nomination letter. “If every county in the state of Minnesota had volunteers like the Welles, it would make all of our jobs a little easier.”
MacKissock said that, thanks to the Welles, there are “five ex-inmates that are now sober and clean and currently volunteer for this program. These individuals have been clean, sober and criminal free anywhere from two years to 19 years because of this program. Some of these ex-inmates have also started their own programs here and are also doing an outstanding job.”
It not only helps those incarcerated, it helps the whole community, MacKissock added. “If we can help one person from recommitting another crime and finding a job, we have helped the community.”
Inspired by the REC retreat, which is held twice a year in Morrison County and at several other jail and prison facilities around the state, Bev helped start a local weekly jail ministry called Your Choice. Each week, the group gathers for faith sharing around Scripture and Christian topics.
“That was my anchor and my recovery,” Hoheisel said.
Robert Backowski and wife Mary Anne Backowski also volunteer with the Morrison County Jail REC program and the weekly Your Choice ministry.
“When you look through addiction, crimes, whatever brought the residents there, you look into the heart and see Jesus there,” Robert Backowski said. “These are real people — somebody’s son, somebody’s sister. Jesus would have ministered to them. With Bev and Darrell, it’s all about bringing Jesus in. They are always the glue that keeps everything together.”
After completing his time in jail, Hoheisel said the Welles, the Backowskis and the other volunteers encouraged him to “plug in” to his community, his church and stay connected with the REC family.
“I stayed clean, stayed sober,” he said. “And then, after some time and going through the process, I am now able to volunteer with REC and carry on the message of hope to others. I get a chance to share my story, my testimony and the Gospel message. I use that encounter to help others, to give them hope.
“There was a point in time when I couldn’t talk to anybody, but now I can hardly keep quiet,” Hoheisel said. “Everybody has struggles and everybody needs hope. That’s what Bev and Darrell gave me. I cannot express my thanks enough to them and to all the volunteers of the program.”
The Welles accepted this award on behalf of the team and the REC program and all those who have gone through a REC weekend.
“We say we go in with no expectations, just to bring Jesus and hope,” Bev said. “We don’t expect any reward. But it is so rewarding to see that we’ve made a difference in people’s lives.”
To learn more about the REC program, visit www.cm-rec.org. Questions may also be directed to the Welles by calling 320-745-2582.