Monday, October 27, 2008
Link to the article (Please note that the article as it appeared in the paper is a little different than the one on the internet.)
||Friend to Felons
Pastor Lisa Cram preaches to prisoners and helps them transition to life outside. It’s a ministry she herself once needed.
By GREG HARDESTY
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Monday, October 27, 2008
RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA… Three couples are at a dinner party. The food table nearly groans under the weight of steak tacos, homemade guacamole and cheesecake drenched in plum sauce.
Hosts Lisa and Gary Cram love to entertain in their family home, in their family-friendly neighborhood, in the family-oriented town of Rancho Santa Margarita.
And what family-friendly folk, you ask, do the Crams like to have over? Tonight's guest list includes a former prostitute who used to make up to $2,000 a day, a convicted armed robber, and a couple who used to steal jeans from department stores and resell them to buy heroin and methamphetamine.
"One big jailbird family," jokes one of the guests, Ricky Sosa, 40, the recovering junkie and outlaw jeans entrepreneur. He later jokes about the lack of a metal detector at the Crams' front door.
It's not an unusual evening for the Crams. Before her guests arrive, Lisa Cram starts to explain why she regularly welcomes ex-cons into her home. But before she can finish, she stops stirring a bubbling pot of Spanish rice and starts to cry.
"There is such joy in seeing real change happen," she says.
"I know that change is possible," she adds. "I've seen it. I experienced it." Like the four ex-felons coming over for dinner, Cram, at one time, was lost.
DETOUR… Long before she became a pastor — long before she started visiting prisons and inviting ex-prisoners into her home and believing in change — Cram was a drinking alcoholic and a thief.
Growing up all over the place, the daughter of a Navy man, she was a rebellious teen. She fell in with the wrong crowd at Valley High School in Santa Ana. Or, maybe, the kids she ran with were led by her, too.
Either way, before she turned 21, Cram did two-plus months in jail for two separate thefts. Then, she says, she turned her life around. She moved back home and cut off her old friends. Having pastors for parents, she says, helped.
Warren Baruch, her father, founded a non-denominational charismatic church in Irvine in 1983 after serving in the Navy. He and his wife, Mary, are senior founding pastors at Powerhouse Christian Fellowship. Lisa Cram got involved with that ministry when she got out of Orange County Jail in the early 1980s and, today, at 46, works there full-time as an associate pastor.
For the last three years, Cram's specialty has been as difficult as it gets for a pastor – she serves the incarcerated, corresponding with prisoners throughout the state and regularly visiting the local jails. She also tends to parolees. Many are struggling to remain clean while avoiding the old traps that got them in trouble in the first place – a path Cram knows well.
Ex-felons like Sosa and his wife, Liza Vazquez, 42, of Laguna Niguel, say Cram is unlike other prison ministers they've known. She cares deeply, they say, and does more than drop off literature for them to read.
Readings, however, are part of Cram's work. Her non-profit, Prelude Foundation of Rancho Santa Margarita, sends mailings to about 385 prisoners every week, including hard timers at prisons like Pelican Bay, San Quentin and the California Institute for Women. Cram also writes personal letters to about 50 felons every week.
But her work goes beyond words, too. Cram hosts bridal showers for former felons; attends their weddings. Generally, she says she spends as much time as possible with people on the spiritual fence, serving as a mentor and, at times, something akin to life coach.
CHANGES… As Audrey Atlas and Michael settle in for dinner with the woman they call "Pastor Lisa," the contrast to their former lives is startling.
Atlas, 45, has been to prison four times over the last decade for prostitution, drug possession, forgery and identity theft. Michael, 32, has been behind bars numerous times, and he's currently on parole for an armed robbery conviction.
But these days, Michael is working as an electrician, and trying to avoid trouble. (Because of his former gang ties he did not want to be photographed or interviewed for this story.)
And, in all sorts of ways, the couple is trying to create new lives as non-criminal suburbanites. They're married. They have a 3-month old daughter, Nina. And they're house-hunting. Though they share a condominium with Michael's mother in Aliso Viejo, for now, they're pre-qualified for a $150,000 home loan.
"People like us can make it," says Atlas, who is weary of what she sees as negative stereotypes about ex-convicts on television; fictionalizations of people who struggle, but rarely succeed at staying straight. "You just got to get off your lazy butt," says Atlas, who is on maternity leave from her finance job in Orange.
Atlas says she's far removed from the days when she pumped her veins full of meth while slamming down booze. Atlas says Cram helps her keep her head on straight in a county that, in her view, looks down on anybody who looks like they might be struggling.
"Especially in south Orange County, people drive by in their expensive cars and look at you funny if you're just standing around waiting for a bus," says Atlas, who got out of prison two years ago.
"It's like if you're just waiting for a bus, they think you're a bad person."
BIG PLANS…Cram's ministry goes beyond counseling inmates and parolees.
Next year, she and her husband, Gary, 55, also a pastor, hope to have funding in place to open a recovery home for 12 people. This is an underserved industry that has to turn people away.
She and Gary met at church and recently celebrated 23 years of marriage.
At the dinner party, Sosa and Vazquez excitedly discuss an upcoming public celebration of their own marriage, a year earlier.
Sosa installs garage doors. Vazquez, who says she was suicidal before serving a 16-month stint for drug and theft-related charges, works in customer service and data entry. Sosa, who got out of prison a year ago, also is on parole. Vazquez got off parole in April.
But the couple has been meeting regularly with Pastor Lisa for Bible study for more than two years and Cram is optimistic about their future.
"Most people want to be better but are afraid to let go of the past they know for an uncertain future," says Cram, who performs two church services a month at the Orange County Jail and, once a week, visits inmates all day.
"We just stay focused. We go to work and then go home," Vazquez says. "Now we want to help other people," she adds, "just like we've been helped (by Pastor Lisa)." Vazquez says Cram is a big reason she and her husband are staying sober and getting their lives back together.
"We wouldn't be here if people like her didn't believe in us, or invest in us," Vazquez says.
"She didn't see our past. She saw our potential."