Ex-con helps ex-cons transition and transcend: By Pamela Cook
“God is clearly saying, ‘You’re in the right place,’” says Julio Medina now. But this hasn’t always been the case.
Julio, a former drug dealer who spent 12 years in four different maximum-security prisons in New York, was released from Sing Sing in 1996. By January 2004, just a few short years later, he sat between First Lady Laura Bush and the current President of the Iraqi Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi, an invited guest at US President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address.
Why does he warrant this recognition? Julio serves as executive director of Exodus Transitional Community (ETC), a safe haven where ex-offenders seek help and support through programs that provide career development, computer training, help with housing, and individual, family and group counseling to handle issues like anger management. ETC operates on the third and fourth floors of a walk-up in New York City’s East Harlem.
When Julio got out of prison, there was no ETC to help him, so he is passionate about the need for this type of transitional program.
“Don’t define someone by the worst moment in their life.”
“The first 24 to 72 hours are crucial,” Julio says, in determining the next steps for someone right out of prison. His goal is to see the ETC concept embraced more broadly, that the world could hear this message—“Don’t define someone by the worst moment in their life.”
Julio leans forward and speaks quietly and articulately for more than an hour about his journey from dealing drugs to changing lives, taking only an occasional bite from the sandwich on the table in front of him. It’s nearly 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon, and he’s only now having lunch. As is his custom nowadays, he’s been up since 4am and his workday is likely to extend into the evening. “I want to make certain our program works,” he says simply.
“I was an inmate at Eastern NY Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York, and my teenage niece came to visit,” Julio remembers. “‘You’re going to like my boyfriend,’ she told me. I found out later her boyfriend was the biggest drug dealer in New York.” The realization that this was the impression he’d left on his family—that he wanted to associate only with dealers—brought Julio up short. “At that moment,” he says, “I knew I would never sell another drug again. I had to change the way my family viewed me, the way the world viewed me.”
“He was not someone you’d expect to be reading a church history book.
Julio was tutoring other prisoners at the time, teaching them how to read and write, and he observed another tutor walking around with a book about church history under his arm. “I was curious,” Julio says. “Scotty had dreadlocks—he was not someone you’d expect to be reading a church history book.” Julio talked to Scotty and learned he was in a certificate program offered by New York Theological Seminary. He approached the program’s coordinator, another prisoner named Lonnie McLeod, and enrolled in the program.
Julio pauses to clarify a point—one he returns to repeatedly: “There was no big monumental moment that changed me. But the sparks of what to do with my life started then.” It was a gradual awakening to his spirituality. “God led me,” he says, chuckling. “If it was up to me, I would have found a shortcut.”
“Every day I’d sit in my cell and read, and then listen.”
In fact, he didn’t really think of God as “God” yet. Instead, Julio was aware of a presence, a growing sense of being divinely led. “Every day I’d sit in my cell and read, and then listen. I was really receptive. I was being led by Spirit,” he says.
Julio was inspired by certain teachings of the program. “Become a life-giver, not a life-taker” was one. Although raised in the Catholic faith, he was grateful the program steered clear of denomination. It transcended barriers, rather than creating them. It did not divide the prisoners into new gangs. This goal of transcending barriers began to define Julio’s life work.
Julio finished the certificate program and was transferred to Sing Sing, just behind Lonnie McLeod. Lonnie told him, “Try the masters program in Professional Studies.” So, Julio enrolled.
“Sing Sing is a very violent prison,” he says. “When I got there, there were a lot of stabbings—it was common to see guys slashing each other with razors. You become immune. You move out of the way so the blood doesn’t get on you. It’s not ‘your beef.’”
But this time, he was stopped in his tracks.
Then one day, on his way to the chapel, Julio came upon a pool of blood. But this time, he stopped in his tracks—he could not walk past it. He was learning that all men are brothers in God’s eyes. “It was another person’s blood, my brother’s blood,” he explains. After that, Julio became the one breaking up fights.
Julio’s life had turned in a new direction—one of service. “That was it,” he says looking back today. After that, “nothing mattered but helping people.”
Today, Julio measures success by what he calls “small victories.” One evening, at the end of another long day at ETC, Julio was called into a mentorship program meeting. “It was late, and I really just wanted to go home,” Julio says. But he didn’t. He put down his bags and went into the meeting. There was a man there, he’d just gotten out of prison, and he was having problems—problems at home, with his wife. There was another man living with her. So Julio listened and offered support. The specifics are fuzzy now, and unimportant. That man joined the ETC program. “You’re the reason I’m doing okay,” he later told Julio. “You listened.”
“Small victories,” Julio says, smiling.
“How can God not be in that?”
“Ten years ago, I was in a cell in the worst prison in New York. Now I’m at the State of the Union—how can God not be in that?” he says. In May, Julio will be awarded his masters of divinity. Lonnie McLeod is now Rev. Dr. Lonnie McLeod, President of ETC.
To Julio, God is first and foremost universal—accessible, always present, available to all. God transcends barriers. It is God, Julio says, who enables him to converse as easily with an 18 year old coming out of prison as with the President of the United States. “God has allowed me to cross these barriers,” he says.
“When I look in people’s eyes, it’s there—God’s presence,” he says. “God is not a remote being in the sky. He is here. He connects us to our purpose.”
He peels away the layers and uncovers the child of God.
Julio continues, “When you look in someone’s eyes, you’re looking at a child of God—even if it’s under layers of prison, abuse, alcoholism. Peel them away, and there’s a child of God there.” That’s Julio’s gift—and his calling. He peels away the layers and uncovers the child of God.
Julio’s commitment is deep. He brings a determination to his work that is energizing and inspiring to all he touches.
Conversation over, Julio emerges into an environment buzzing with activity, people calling his name, needing his help. As he turns his attention back to the individuals he serves, Julio is singing a song, “Here I am, Lord,” which sums up his new life of service. The chorus goes like this:
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.
Prayerful possibilities for a second chance:
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