FARGO — It was the most unlikely of places for a ministry to take root. For one, former First Lady Nancy Schafer doesn’t even like shopping, but she happened to be at West Acres that day to buy a few items.
“Not long before, I had been praying, ‘Lord, show me a way I can serve you,’” says Schafer, reflecting on her decade with Jail Chaplains — a term that ends soon.
She and her husband, former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, had just returned from Washington, D.C., after serving in the George W. Bush Administration — a commitment that had required the relinquishment of much of her local outreach.
“I was able to keep my corporate boards, which was nice,” she says, but it wasn’t quite the same “feeling of service” one gets helping a nonprofit.
While paying for her items at Macy’s that day in 2010, a stranger came up to Schafer and sheepishly introduced himself as the Rev. Curt Frankhauser. Then, he boldly explained his new ministry. Before she could collect her receipt, Schafer was accepting an invitation to meet him at the Cass County Jail.
“At the time, his office was his pickup,” Schafer says, noting the travel requirements.
Upon entering the jail days later, she was struck by observing the pastor ministering to a jailer who’d “just gotten some very hard news.” Frankhauser’s compassionate praying over the bereft man, and its calming effect, moved Schafer.
“It was a powerful example to me of the need, and what could be done,” she says. “There wasn’t much doubt in God’s plan.”
When asked to serve on the board, Schafer’s response was affirmative.
“Working with the jail wasn’t on my radar after Washington, D.C., but what an amazing journey it’s been.”
She began work that summer, counting 2011 as her first full year, admitting, “I didn’t even know where the jail was. And I had no idea what it was like inside, not to mention for the jailers themselves. I certainly didn’t understand the challenges of being incarcerated then trying to reintegrate into society.”
Helping rebuild broken lives, some that seemed to have been “thrown away,” and helping those individuals start anew, has been an extraordinary journey, Schafer says. The work also connected with her childhood in Montana, where her parents had modeled caring for and accompaniment of the downtrodden. Several younger individuals lived in their home for a time, she says, and a homeless man who struggled with alcoholism worked for her dad.
“(Dad) buried him eventually,” Schafer notes. “But he stayed with him through thick and thin.”
Now, she clearly sees the divine preparation that had begun unfolding years before, including difficult experiences, like watching a step-nephew’s alcohol addiction end in suicide.
“I couldn’t see God’s plan in the midst of that, but it’s exciting to see God’s plan now,” Schafer says.
Most surprising, she says, have been the sincere friendships that have developed. Though she’d always known of God’s “heart for the broken and lost,” Schafer says, experiencing “that bond of faith that makes such a difference in a relationship” has been heartening, “not just with the inmates, but other board members, volunteers, police officers and so many I’ve met along the way.”
Building a bridge
Gerri Leach collaborated closely with Schafer through the years, beginning as executive director in 2013, just after Schafer was elected board chairperson.
“At that time, the focus of the ministry was inside the Cass County Jail,” Leach says. Later, it expanded to include educational support groups and Bible studies outside it, creating an essential bridge between incarceration and societal integration.
“To look back and see how God used Nancy’s circle of influence, and the broad range of relationships I had developed across the community while working (previously) with the Salvation Army… is pretty incredible,” Leach observes.
In that earlier capacity, Leach had assisted the community through two major floods, preparing her for another disaster affecting our community in the spring of 2016 — the opioid drug crisis.
“Some churches wanted to be helpful but weren’t sure what to do,” Leach says.
The following spring, the Jail Chaplains leadership discovered the “Living Free” faith-based, small-group model. “Under Nancy’s leadership, the board stepped out in faith, investing to bring the model to Fargo, holding the first training seminary in January 2018.”
Nick Mackner had been “getting in trouble off and on” for several years, he says, admitting himself to Prairie St. John’s three times. There, he was connected with Jail Chaplains.
“They gave me a voucher for some clothes at the thrift store,” he says.
Touched by the gesture, he reached out to Leach to thank her. From there, a relationship formed.
“Gerri’s been picking me up for church on the weekends, giving me accountability,” Mackner says. “I quit smoking a month ago, and I’ve been sober now for 82 days.”
Unhealed wounds and bold-faced temptation had pulled him off track before, he says.
“I would use (drugs) to block the feelings.” But now, he’s back working, and recently got his driver’s license reinstated.
“I’ve got my relationship back with my daughter, my grandma, my family — everything’s moving in a positive direction.”
Along with his own determination, he credits “Living Free” anger management class and the Life Recovery Bible he received from Jail Chaplains, which helped revive the faith his mother tried sharing, somewhat futilely, with him years ago.
“I’ve been praying every day since she passed away,” he says, noting that, a decade after her death, he’s finally sensing God’s closeness.
Faith Vettleson had known about Jail Chaplains for years, but until recently, wasn’t ready to embrace what the ministry offered. But in February, thanks in large part to Leach never giving up on her, she says, things began to fall into place.
“She would pick me up for church, and she just kind of walked with me, helping point me in the right direction,” Vettleson says. “I ended up going back to prison after I met her, but every time I got back on my feet, she would come and find me.”
She considers Leach more than a mentor.
“We have a shared bond and a friendship,” Vettleson says, adding that Leach also stayed near when her father died this past summer. “She drove me up (to Grand Forks) to say goodbye.”
Recently, an aunt gave her a picture of her Confirmation day from age 10, reminding her of a childhood faith that “kind of faded away” as she grew up. “It just wasn’t really something I believed.”
That’s changed now, and she’s reclaimed her life, including her belief in God.
“I feel lighter,” Vettleson says. “It has a lot to do with letting go and letting good people into my life,” along with “the persistence of God and the people of Jail Chaplains.”
She especially loves being able to help others struggling through life by giving back.
“It’s very rewarding,” Vettleson says. “When my peers see me doing some of these (good things), it brings a little bit of hope.”
Schafer says the common thread she’s discovered between “those who deliver the ministry and those who receive it” has become evident in these past 10 years — much to her delight.
“As I’ve listened to testimonies of people we’ve served, their joy has been similar to mine. It’s been lifesaving for them, and for me… our faith has both deepened.”
The Jail Chaplains annual fundraising banquet will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 20, and can be attended either in person or virtually.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Oct. 9, 2020.]