- August 3, 2011
First Amendment Protects Wheaton Ministry
Rev. Manuel “Manny” Mill is a man on a mission. As the founder and Executive Director of Koinonia House National Ministries, Rev. Mill has devoted his life to the ministry of people released from prison. He has opened his home and his family to them, establishing a landmark program in which newly released prisoners live with a Christian family and are integrated into the local religious and business community as they return to life in society.
What began in 1991 as a daring experiment in his own home in Wheaton, Illinois, has grown to serve more than 30 men from locations in Wheaton and Colorado Springs. On a broader scale, Koinonia House’s national “Meet Me at the Gate” program holds in-house seminars at correctional facilities and works with churches and community groups to receive newly released prisoners. The newly released prisoners are treated as human beings who need the practical connections and training required for a successful reintegration into society. Through the program, a local church mentor and community family are paired with a former prisoner, usually for 15 months. According to Rev. Mill, “80 percent of inmates participating in ‘Meet Me at the Gate’ have remained outside of future incarceration, which is much higher than the national average.”
Rev. Mill did not come to this mission by chance. A child refugee from Cuba, he grew up in Union City, N.J., where he ultimately got a job selling insurance. As he explains, “I began to make money, and I began to fulfill what I thought was the American Dream.” Eventually, however, he began forging checks. “To me, I had made it. I had four cars, 100 suits, and I was popular. Soon, the FBI was on to me.” Rev. Mill fled to Caracas, Venezuela. After receiving a plea from his parents, he was inspired by their words and repented.
Rev. Mill returned to the United States to face the consequences of his crimes. “I was facing 55 years behind bars. I admitted that I was guilty, and the judge gave me only three years. I learned a long time ago to never ask God for justice, but to ask God for mercy.”
Rev. Mill continued his faith journey in prison and after. Upon finishing his sentence, he met Dr. Charles “Chuck” Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship, an in-prison Christian ministry that is active in 116 countries. Dr. Colson, who was Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon, served time in prison himself because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Following his release, Rev. Mill was awarded the Charles W. Colson Scholarship, a Christian leadership grant for newly released inmates to enroll at Wheaton College. The scholarship allowed him to continue his education, pursue ordination as a minister, and begin his life’s work at Koinonia House. The late Dr. Kenneth T. Wessner, former Chairman and CEO of ServiceMaster Industries, founded the Charles W. Colson Scholarship at Wheaton College and later became a spiritual mentor to Rev. Mill.
Rev. Mill’s plan was to start small, in his own home, with his own family. His ministry purchased a home in Wheaton, Illinois, with enough room to accommodate his family and up to four released inmates. He would mentor them, pray with them, and connect them with local churches, sponsors, businesses and others who could provide a meaningful and lasting transition from prison to society. Rev. Mill’s home was zoned for single family residential use, but the Wheaton zoning code defined that use to allow up to four unrelated adults to reside with the family. Everything seemed to be in place.
Then, word got out in the neighborhood that released prisoners would be living in Rev. Mill’s home. The local alderman labeled the home a “half-way house,” and insisted that the city prevent Rev. Mill from going forward. First, the city tried to make a zoning objection, but the home was in compliance with the code. Next, the city enacted a “Group Home Ordinance,” imposing burdensome and expensive regulations on all “group homes” which provided “services.” The city insisted that Koinonia House, as it was now called, comply with all of the requirements applicable to group homes, thereby treating Rev. Mill’s purely religious activities as the basis for regulating what would otherwise be a single family home under the local ordinances. Under the Group Home Ordinance, Wheaton threatened Rev. Mill and his wife, Barbara with fines of $1,000 per day for keeping their home open.
Faced with this threat to his ministry, Rev. Mill reached out for legal help through his board and was introduced to Jim Geoly. The situation was dire, and urgent. The city was moving forward to enforce its ordinance and Koinonia House did not have the resources to weather a prolonged legal battle, incurring fines all along the way. Together, Mr. Geoly and Rev. Mill devised a strategy to file a lawsuit in federal court requesting a temporary restraining order, and to use the time gained to publicize Koinonia House’s plight in a way that would maximize the pressure on the city to resolve the matter. The strategy worked. The lawsuit made clear that the city was using purely religious activity—prayer and Bible study—as a basis to classify Rev. Mill’s home as a “Group Home.” Under pressure from the Court, the city agreed to forego enforcement while the parties discussed settlement. At the same time, Rev. Mill’s plea to the clergy of Wheaton rallied them to the cause of Koinonia House, changing the dynamic on the ground. After lengthy negotiations, the city settled and Koinonia House was free to continue its ministry.
This intersection of faith and law was a profound experience for both Rev. Mill and Mr. Geoly. Rev. Mill saw Jim Geoly as a partner. “He not only made the legal arguments, but he truly understood what we were all about,” says Rev. Mill. “He demonstrated a real affinity for religious organizations and people of faith and devoted himself entirely to our cause. If it weren’t for Jim, there wouldn’t be a Koinonia House.”
Mr. Geoly sees this as a classic example of the need to protect even the smallest exercise of religion from government intrusion. “Even in a place like Wheaton, which is friendly to religious groups, government can act in ways that either restrict the freedom of religion directly, or treat religion as a basis for regulation. Regulators ask, ‘Why should religious groups be treated differently?’ The short answer is, ‘because the First Amendment treats religion differently.’”
Mr. Geoly, a partner in the Firm’s Religious and Not-for-Profit practice group, believes that small religious ministries or groups from lesser known faiths can be vulnerable to excessive government interference. “We represent religious organizations ranging from large institutional churches and well-established denominations, to small religions and church ministries that have just a few followers. Courts seem to be familiar with well-established faiths and more apt to protect their freedom. It can be a challenge to make clear to a judge how and why the same protection should be afforded to a group he or she has never heard of.”
With 700,000 men and women released from prison each year, the work of Koinonia House is more important than ever. “Our work today is to continue to get more churches to become involved in welcoming our neighbors when they are released from prison, as well as to get more prisons to enact reform.” This is happening. Recently, the Illinois Department of Corrections has agreed to allow Koinonia House to establish a Bible college at the Danville Correctional Center, funded solely by private donations. “We do not accept a penny from the government,” says Rev. Mill.
Now out of prison for 23 years, Rev. Mill continues to devote his life to the ministry of Koinonia House. He still lives in Wheaton with his wife and partner in ministry, Barbara, and their sons Howard and Kenneth.
To learn more about Koinonia House or its annual dinner at The Carlisle in Lombard, Illinois, on Tuesday, October 25, please visit www.koinoniahouse.org.
Jim Geoly can be reached at 312/840-7080 or firstname.lastname@example.org.