Story and photos by Jan Osborn.
The Men of Nehemiah was born out of a pastor’s heart-wrenching desire to save his wayward son from the grip of addiction. As a result of his relentless love for his son, Pastor Louis Harrell, Sr. established The Men of Nehemiah in New Orleans. Today, his son, Louis Harrell, Jr. is the Executive Director. Louis, Jr. brought this ministry to Dallas following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and has called Dallas home for almost 10 years. The Men of Nehemiah is a nine-month residential, discipleship and addiction recovery ministry for men. The program consists of a faith-based, robust, military-style component that provides healthy disciplinary training. Their military-style uniforms identify them as disciplined and respected individuals.
Recently we were introduced to Melinda and Mike Russ, a couple who are intentionally invested into this special ministry for men. Besides serving on The Men of Nehemiah Board of Directors, Mike serves as a mentor to several of the men and heads up the mentorship program. In addition, he coaches their men’s basketball team and teaches math to those who are working on their GED. Melinda has found her sweet spot as she truly loves on the men in the program in a mothering role. Last year, Melinda hosted a wedding for one of the men in her home; helped a graduate with college enrollment; helps with the annual fundraiser, mentors, and has even taken in a man until he could get on his feet.
Melinda and Mike welcomed Dallas Doing Good into their home for an interview to learn more about The Men of Nehemiah.
Would you share your story of how you first got involved with The Men of Nehemiah and how it has grown?
(Melinda and Mike looked at each other and smiled because that question had two different answers.)
Melinda: As a member of 100 Shares in Dallas, I was on the committee to interview different ministries around town. Louis Harrell who started The Men of Nehemiah made a four minute presentation. I walked out, and there was something that changed in my heart immediately. I said I have to know that man. That afternoon I ran into my neighbor Michal who had attended the same committee meeting earlier that day. I asked Michal if she remembered Louis who had spoken that morning. She said that they had been going to church on Sunday mornings with The Men of Nehemiah and that her husband, Loyd, was attending a men’s Bible study with the men that evening. I said that Mike was going with Loyd and would be on the curb waiting for him at 5:30 p.m. Loyd picked up Mike that evening and that was six and a half years ago.
Mike: I’m a bit of a late bloomer. I grew up in a very strict Catholic upbringing, fish sticks on Friday and never missed church services which were done in Latin back in the 1960’s. Church was boring. We weren’t a touchy feely type of family. When I went off to college to study math, I decided to give up on religion. If I couldn’t see it or feel it or touch it, then how can it exist? I really didn’t know anything about relationships, because I didn’t have a close relationship with my parents. I even came into our marriage, as Melinda would say, like the tin man from The Wizard of Oz. That caused a lot of stress in our marriage for a long time. Honestly, it wasn’t until six and a half years ago that changed. Meeting and working with The Men of Nehemiah has changed my life.
What happened over time is that I gravitated towards being a mentor. I’ve been on the board for a number of years but the most powerful aspect is creating relationships one on one as a mentor to these men. 95% of these guys grew up without a father. Many of their moms were drug addicts and prostitutes. Many were homeless. These guys have lived in a downward spiral. These lifestyles keep getting passed down from generation to generation. Most of these men have never had a male figure in their lives at all. I’m not trying to be their parent. Mentoring means being a steady influence in their life, just being consistent and grabbing a hamburger once a week.
Share about how the Men of Nehemiah program works.
Mike: We have a facility that can hold up to 60 people. We currently have 48 men in our program. When I started going there we probably had 25 or 30 men in the program. Now the word is getting around about The Men of Nehemiah, especially since the judicial system is involved and recognizes that it’s a great program. By the time people get to The Men of Nehemiah they are at the lowest of the low. Every testimony says, “I just cried out to God” or “I was homeless behind a dumpster and said God, please help me and like a guardian angel some man walks by and said, you need to go to Nehemiah.” That’s how God works.
The nine month program is set up in three different stages. Stage one is detoxing and learning how to navigate their new life. There’s not much freedom at all, no cell phones and they basically can’t go anywhere. In the first 30 days, 35% of the guys leave the program. They just can’t take it, too strange, too regimented, too hard. But if they stay 30 days, 88% of the guys graduate the program.
The second three months, is when they can start having mentors and get a little more responsibility. By the third trimester, they start getting jobs, they can have phones, they can leave the premises with permission. There’s a lot more freedom.
We actually have an optional transition program after nine months. It’s difficult once they graduate to abruptly leave the program and return to normal society. We have a rule that you have to have saved $1,500 by graduation. We have a new building near headquarters that we are opening for transitional housing or sober living and six to eight guys can live at this facility. They can stay there for a number of months and pay only $400 a month for room and board.
As you are working with The Men of Nehemiah, what do you find that you have in common with the men you are serving?
Mike: We’re all the same. We’re all broken, whether you’re from North Dallas or South Dallas. Just because we have a nice car and a nice house, we are no different. We’re all the same…broken. Just because you are not a drug addict or alcoholic, it doesn’t mean you don’t have an addiction. Everyone has an addiction. Yes, it can be sex addiction or porn, there’s a million addictions out there. But, it also can be your children, your job, CNBC, or video games. Everyone’s got something. I always say if God is not your number one addiction, then you’ve got the wrong addiction.
Melinda: I love these men with all my heart. I understand their brokenness. I grew up with a very neglectful and absent father and know the feelings abandonment brings to a child’s life. I feel their wounded souls. I have a very strong Christian mother who has a servant heart. I was blessed with people that God put in my life to replace my earthly father. They offered me life-changing opportunities that I don’t believe I would have otherwise had. I pray and ask God daily how He can use me so that I can make a difference in the lives of these men and their families.
How have you seen people get involved after volunteering with Men of Nehemiah?
Mike: The concept was started by two men from Park Cities Baptist Church, Rick Morgan and Walker Harman. They thought, what would happen if we bring some old North Dallas, white guys in to love on each other and see where it goes? That was 10 years ago, and basically it’s super powerful as you’re seeing these miracles happen.
Could you share any stories of transformation that you have seen while working with Men of Nehemiah?
Mike: I have two great stories. One man was on death row for murder and attempted murder. He went through the program in nine months and graduated. He now has a successful job, has been reunited with his family and his community. He was on death row but now he is born again.
And, one of the guys who plays on my Nehemiah basketball team was facing 14 years in prison. The judge released him and now he’s in the program.
The Men of Nehemiah holds a worship service every Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. for the men and the homeless to attend. After, a full breakfast is served by the men in the program to the homeless. However, all who want to attend are welcomed.
For more information, you can visit menofnehemiah.org.
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