For Birmingham native Gerrel Jones, it's all about community.
Jones is the co-founder and CEO of Renew Birmingham, a non-profit that builds culture and cohesion by offering services and resources to people in need in return for investing their time and work in their local communities.
On a recent episode of "1819 News: The Podcast," Jones explained how growing up poor and facing a life sentence for murder put him on the path of helping others create strong social bonds by following the example of Jesus Christ.
After being abused as a child, Jones said he turned to a life of drugs and crime. He was soon arrested for armed robbery in Florida and got out of jail in 1990. Three years later, Jones was on trial for murdering his great-grandmother's husband.
"We had a conflict, he threatened me, and I stabbed him to death," Jones said. "And had a spiritual experience immediately afterwards."
Jones said he could have gotten away with the murder but for the conviction of his conscience. He turned himself in to the police and was ultimately sentenced to life with a possibility of parole.
At the time, Jones said he believed in a higher power but viewed religion as the cause of the world's problems rather than that solution.
"How I came to Christ was really educational," he said. "I don't mind telling you today that I thought to be a Christian was like the stupidest thing you could possibly be."
While in prison, Jones began to study the Bible and found that it had a different message than he and many other Christians were used to hearing. He chose to follow the example of Jesus and began to selflessly serve others in any way he could.
"So here I was in prison with a captive audience, with a death sentence; how was I going to survive it with my sanity intact?" he said. "I had to have purpose. Had to find meaning in the suffering."
He started a discipleship ministry in prison where he was able to mentor many inmates and lead them to Christ, including a white supremacist member of the Aryan Brotherhood. That inmate introduced Jones to his brother, who worked with the family lawyer to help Jones get paroled out of prison.
"I don't know what happened," Jones said. "I can't tell you what happened, but I do know that I went up for parole a 6th time, and the parole board acted like they were my family, like they couldn't wait for me to get home."
Once out of prison, Jones had help starting his own mowing business and getting a part-time job. It wasn't long before he got promoted, made more money and was able to buy his own house.
"Adding value had become a mantra for me because if people are going to want you in their life, then you got to be bringing something, not because everybody wants to take something from you but because people just do not enjoy having takers," he said. "Even though we have to tolerate it, givers or people who are willing to add value where the weaknesses are are the most valuable people we have. So I wanted to always be that."
That's when he started his first non-profit organization, the Pneuma Gallery, to help those people coming out of prison and to reduce recidivism. He said even then, he was working to put "the neighbor back in neighborhood."
He started with his neighborhood, going door to door to meet those around him. After attending local outreach meetings and being asked to help reach some of the poorer areas in need, Jones founded Renew Alabama.
Jones said Renew does things differently than most other non-profits by focusing on small, specific areas rather than the entire city so that he can "aggressively pursue" people on a personal level. Also, anyone asking Renew for help must be willing to invest volunteer hours working to better their community. This model, Jones said, allows people to retain their dignity and create a community culture and attitude of hard work.
"I had learned by that point that the only way to change community is to do it from the inside out," he said. "Every effort that we have made from the outside in has failed… What we've got to do is change people's minds and get them invested in their own revitalization because it won't happen from the outside in."
Jones continued, "The concept, whether I'm here or not, if we can teach people the concept, and it's actually biblical. If you just look at what Jesus is doing and do it the same way, that's what this model has sprung up around."
During Renew's first three-quarters of operation, starting in January 2023, Jones said the homicide rate in the area dropped by 45%.
"That's phenomenal. I wasn't expecting that," he said. "Can't take credit for it. We can only say we were there when it happened. However, if you look at the rest of the city, it was on fire."
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