Pahokee church opens its doors to sex offenders

Pahokee church opens its doors to sex offenders

PAHOKEE, Fla. - If you stop by First United Methodist Church in Pahokee, you'll hear a united voice to the beat of 24-year old Christopher Dawson.

"I was going to be in a band," he says.

Inside this sanctuary, he's a member of this congregation.

Outside of it, in the eyes of the law, he's a convicted sex offender.

"I can't live next to a park, playground, school, daycare, anywhere children congregate," Dawson says.

Now 24-years-old, decisions Dawson made when he was 19 will always live with him.

He was convicted of having sex with a 14-year old girl.

He says he thought she was 18.

"If I knew she was underage I would have left real quick," Dawson says.

Whatever it is you think about the sex offender label, United Methodist's head pastor wants you to look past it.

"These are not the guys that the stereotype is for," says Pastor Patti Aupperlee, "The belief that we have here at this church all persons are welcome."

Aupperlee has been helping sex offenders for the past five years.

"We have high expectations of behavior for all persons. It's a safe sanctuary for all persons," she says.

In this church, the band, ushers, and several of the people in the pews are registered sex offenders.

Aupperlee helps sex offenders find work inside and outside of the church.

"They've paid their debt to society they committed a crime, no one is trying to white wash that away," she says.

When Patti first started welcoming sex offenders here in 2011, not everyone in the congregation was happy about it.

"What in the hell do you think you're doing?" Lynda Moss remembers telling Aupperlee.

Moss has played organ at United Methodist for 50 years.

Aupperlee says some people left the congregation but many stayed.

She says through music, prayer, and conversation they came around, including Moss.

"These guys are like family to me I love them all," Moss says.

Like at any church service you'll see families here with children.

Some people in attendance have had inappropriate relationships with people under age, others have been convicted of downloading child pornography.

Whether the sex offenders can have legal contact with children is defined by their probation.

"For those that have legal requirements because of their probation to not speak to people under the age of 18, that is honored," Aupperlee says.

Patti says the church is very open about who worships there.

She says those who bring their children are very aware about the pasts of some of the people in the congregation.

Patti might be the last person you would expect to help those guilty of sex crimes because she is a victim herself.

"It was a family friend of my parents, who they trusted that molested me" She says "We need to be diligent wherever we go."

Many sex offenders have found their way to this church because Pahokee is all they have.

More than 100 live in a village on the outskirts of town run by a Christian ministry called Matthew 25 Ministries.

The ministry helps first time sex offenders who do not have a history of violent crime.

The village is more than two miles away from the nearest neighborhood. It's surrounded by acres of sugar cane fields.

The sex offenders live in housing for retired U.S. Sugar workers. Some families and retired cane workers still live in the village but the majority of the residents are sex offenders.

"It's away from schools, It's away from daycare centers, away from everything," says Pat Powers.

Sex offender Pat Powers runs his own ministry called Miracle Village Ministries. It helps some of the sex offenders who live there, like Christopher Dawson.

Dawson lives in the village in a small apartment.

"I mean it could be worse," He says, "like under a bridge or in a car."

Dawson knows he'll live with the label of sex offender for the rest of his life. His name is permanently in the registry of those convicted.

While many won't ever accept Dawson and the others in the village, First United Methodist remains their sanctuary.

"These folks did do their crime, did their time, that's the American dream is you're given another chance, you're released to, you paid your debt to society, move on," Aupperlee says.

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