Bush shares a message of hope during his visit

January 30, 2008|By David Nitkin and Nick Madigan | David Nitkin and Nick Madigan,Sun reporters

President Bush spoke bluntly of his battles with substance abuse during a visit yesterday to a Baltimore job-placement program that has received the kind of federal faith-based funding he wants to boost.

"Addiction is hard to overcome," Bush said yesterday at the Jericho program in East Baltimore, which helps former prisoners lead productive lives. "As you might remember, I drank too much at one time in my life. ... I understand that sometimes you can find the inspiration from a higher power to solve an addiction problem."

Bush was in Baltimore to mark the seventh anniversary of an executive order creating the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In his State of the Union address Monday, he called on Congress to enact into law provisions of the executive order that give faith-based institutions an increased chance at receiving funding.

"Our government should not fear the influence of faith in our society," Bush said at Jericho, which receives $660,000 a year from the Department of Labor's Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative.

Bush met for nearly an hour with several program participants, telling them about the "commonality" they shared by turning to church-based organizations to overcome problems. Bush, who as a young man was arrested for driving under the influence, gave up alcohol at age 40 and became increasingly involved in his church in Texas.

In a room with 11 ex-cons, Bush struck Robert Williams Jr., 35, as someone who had come to terms with his own failings - with divine assistance.

"He mentioned that he hadn't had any alcohol since 1986, and that if it wasn't for the man above it wouldn't have been possible," said Williams, who served 18 months of a five-year prison sentence for drug possession.

Williams, wearing a tie for what he said might be the first time, said it was an honor to have the president speak "to people like us, ex-offenders."

"He said his father was an inspiration to him," Williams, who has two teenage sons and an 8-year-old daughter, said in an interview after Bush had left. "If you believe, you can achieve - that's how I took it."

Williams, who joined Jericho's yearlong program Monday, said he thought it would give him a chance "to seek better opportunities rather than being on the streets and what we're accustomed to."

Jericho, founded in 2006, is administered by Episcopal Community Services of Maryland. It focuses on helping felons who have served time for nonviolent offenses. They come to the program voluntarily.

Another of the participants, Curtis Spears, 50, called Bush's visit "a historical event and a spiritual event."

"It was not a campaign thing or a political thing," said Spears, who most recently served six months for theft and said he has been in and out of jail since he was 11. "He shared some things with us that I would never have expected him to share. He didn't present himself like the president or like a big guy - he was just a guy."

Spears, wearing a lapel pin with the presidential seal, said Bush's visit had helped cement his determination to do things right.

"I was thinking very much straight," he said, "but I was thinking about 80 percent. His visit knocked it up to 150 percent. I'll probably remember this day more than I'll remember my own birthday."

Jericho has served about 365 men, with a recidivism rate about half that of the city average, program officials said. The program also receives money from the Abell Foundation for housing, and from other groups.

Despite the achievements of groups like Jericho, Bush's faith-based effort has its critics. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, which educates on the value of church-state separation, said that Bush's initiative has been a "colossal failure."

Bush's visit caused major traffic tie-ups, leaving motorists frustrated as his motorcade traveled from Fort McHenry to East Baltimore. Police blocked off some streets more than an hour before his arrival.

"Count my business lunch today a victim of the massive traffic jams," said Peter Wayner, a computer programmer and author.

"I had to give up," Wayner said, "because there was no way to get down there."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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