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“It just happened in 2007. I was drunk, intoxicated, high. I walked into a gas station convenience store. It was in Florida. I walked behind the counter. The clerk thought I was trying to rob the place.”
The teller of this particular tale is a 36-year-old former convict, explaining when he hit bottom.
You’d call Jerome Anderson soft-spoken. The cadences of his speech are urban and smooth, his Southern accent a product of West Palm Beach, Fla., not of the hills and hollers of Galax, off in the distance. The outline of two dark blue teardrops rests under his left eye.
“He pulled out a gun and started walking towards me. I backed up. He started shooting at me at point blank range. He shot at me about four times, and then I walked towards him again, I was so messed up. I grabbed the gun and it jammed.”
The air in the back room of the thrift store, where Anderson sits at a table, is warm and close, just a degree shy of uncomfortable. The light is dim. Unsorted merchandise, half-finished projects and art supplies await attention here and there.
An infant, not quite 11 months old, sleeps in a stroller, looking as cherubic and sweet as any baby you’ve ever seen. The man who was shot at is his father.
“I took the gun, threw it from him, and I went to go out the store, and when I did, I felt something on my head.”
Anderson turns, showing his scalp. There, on the back, are a couple of very slender pink scars, two or three inches long, that stand out sharply against his otherwise unblemished skin.
Jill Burcham, the blonde woman sitting at the same table as Anderson — looking like somebody’s neatly-dressed suburban mom who would never lay eyes on a convict outside of a crime drama — nods silently, moved but unruffled.
“It was him stabbing me in my head with a butcher knife. So I turned around, and he was coming at my chest. I grabbed him and threw the knife down, stumbled out the store. And I told God, ‘Don’t let me die like this.’”
Anderson says he’d gotten in a fight with a family member earlier that day, and swore he wished he was dead. Later he realized that words have power, he says, because he nearly got what he’d asked for.
“I was almost dying,” he says. “An ambulance came. The police came first and had to help hold my head together. I made it to a hospital. That was the point when I realized, you know, I had to, if not change right then, I had to at least try to change. Because that was scary.”
Jerome Anderson went through more bad times, but that was when he realized something had to give. “That was the starting point in my journey, from there,” he says. “I had a warrant out, I went to jail, I got out, I went to Indiana to stay with [another branch of my] family, then I went to Florida, then I went to Galax.”
Burcham, the pastor and founder of Galax’s nondenominational P.U.S.H. (Praying Until Something Happens) Ministries, met him after he came through the Life Center’s rehab program, also in Galax.
Now – clean and sober, employed, and a proud dad to son Azariah, “P.U.S.H.’s first grandbaby,” per Burcham – he is the director of the P.U.S.H.’s Convicted Hearts program. Burcham says the program is especially for people coming out of prison or the military who “feel that a door was closed and they have no hope. Any kind of art they can do, they’re welcome. We give them the supplies and atmosphere to do what they do. This gives them a chance to prove themselves.”
“If it wasn’t for P.U.S.H., you know, or if it wasn’t for me meeting Jill, I wouldn’t probably be here,” says Anderson. “I’m telling you, that’s the honest-to-God truth. I wouldn’t be here, because she helps me no matter what. If I go through something, I can tell her anything. She keeps it honest and I keep it honest with her. And that’s what we try to do here.”
“P.U.S.H. Ministries had partnered with Rooftop [of Virginia, a community action program in Galax], and we were there in the building for about a year and a half,” recalls Burcham, who started the ministry after a career as the owner of a manufacturing company in Grayson County. “And Jerome came into the building and said, ‘Here I am. I know that there’s something I’m supposed to do, but I’m not quite sure. I want to stay out of trouble, I’m ready to start my life over again. I don’t really know where to start.’”
Burcham was introduced to Anderson’s art and encouraged him to keep doing it. “I asked him what he liked, and he came out and showed us all this beautiful artwork that he had done while he was in prison. And I said, ‘Oh, my goodness,’” Burcham says.
Eventually P.U.S.H. moved to its current storefront location on Main Street in downtown Galax. “I said to Jerome, ‘Let’s take some of your paintings, and let’s make notecards out of them,’” she says. “So we have notecards out here that are out of some of his original drawings that he brought to us. Then, as it matured, we now have a basement that he uses as an art studio, so these young men come.”
A New Kind of Conviction
Anderson says his grandmother had always encouraged him to pursue music, art and dance, though in his neighborhood, gang activity and drug use was the norm, and he was bullied for his interests. Even though he gave up and got involved in gangs, he still kept on with his artwork, in the form of graffiti, which made him popular with his peers on the street.
The artwork he sports on his face – prison-style teardrops that can have multiple unpleasant meanings – served a dual purpose in his earlier life, and to a degree still do.
“Mine actually stood for my mother and father, the pain from losing them,” says Anderson. The son of a single mom, his father was not a strong presence; later on, his mother, with whom he was close, passed away.
“That’s why they’re not colored in. It’s a code, like on the streets,” he says. “My tears symbolize an eternal pain. But at the time, also, it went with the life that I was living on the streets. They sort of were like a key for me. Since I had my tears, I could go into a spot maybe nobody else could go in, and be in that section, and it’s alright.”
Anderson hasn’t been in touch with his family for some time, he says.
“It’s been a few years. I contacted an aunt of mine, in Florida, but I can’t really go around my family, you know? ‘Cause they just remember me how I used to be,” he says.
“And if I’m doing good here, I don’t want to go back around there anyway, because it doesn’t work. So I’ve got my new family right here.”
The one thing that hasn’t changed about Anderson is his art.
“I love art. I’ve been doing it most of my life,” Anderson says. “I just mix it up. I consider myself to be a street artist. I just draw what I feel at the moment, and I love flowers.” He laughs at this and continues.
“I draw what I feel, you know? Some days, now, I have dark feelings, and I know that this isn’t the place for that right now, but I just paint what I feel and I go with it, man. I like messing around with the furniture and the wood, it’s all new to me. I love pen and paper though, and colored pencils,” he says.
As for his ministry, he says, it grew naturally out of his passion. “I went and met Jill [the first time], and they seen some of my drawings, and told me to keep drawing. I came back and they gave me this art stuff and it just became Convicted Hearts, because it was about people that have been convicted of a crime, but it’s like they still have heart, you know?” he asks. “That person, they’re still working on a change. And so they pushed me towards it, and that’s how the name came up. It just took off from there.”
Anderson says the name was his idea, so chosen because it represents not merely having run-ins with the law, but being “convicted towards spirit.”
Burcham believes, with ardent faith, in Anderson’s program and how necessary it is in a world that dismisses people who’ve made mistakes and been branded for it.
“We live in a community where you can’t get a job if you’re a felon, can’t get food stamps and can’t get housing,” she says. “And we believe that if you have the spirit to want to do the right thing, God will open doors for you.
“Jerome wanted to give people the same opportunity that he had. And since we’ve talked, he has a job, he has housing, and he has food on the table. And he did it because he had a want to. He’s literally a walking testimony of what the right mindset can do. We don’t accept what the world says,” she finishes.
Through the program, artists can sell their works in the store and then use the profits to pay bills and perhaps put a little back into the ministry, which in turn uses the money for more art supplies. Like P.U.S.H. in general, Convicted Hearts relies on the community’s generosity to keep going.
“We have no funding. We’ve been operating on God,” Burcham states flatly. “We depend on people to donate food to us, so we can help families.”
Almost illustratively, in the midst of her talk, someone pops in with bags of squash and cucumbers. “Oh, wow! Thank you so, so much! God bless you!” Burcham calls out, before diving back into the topic.
“We have families where the husband or the wife is in jail and it’s a single parent taking care of the family, and they’re really struggling for food. We can’t help them pay the light bill, we can’t help them pay the rent, but we can sure do our very best to try to help them get all the other things they need,” she says.
What sets Convicted Hearts and P.U.S.H. Ministries in general apart is its 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a week availability. While Burcham is grateful that government agencies exist to help people in need, she says that they’re already strained to the max. Anderson points out that anyone coming to him for help doesn’t have to wait to talk to someone.
“I mean, you don’t gotta fill out a ton of paperwork to come in here,” says Anderson. “You can just come back here and sit down and keep it real with somebody, and just talk to them. Like, ‘This is how it is.’ I know the streets. This is what’s going on. I don’t gotta fill out a form, give you my social security number. I don’t gotta make an appointment. Somebody could walk through this door at any moment, and they life could get changed. I can’t do that nowhere else around here.”
“The people that are drawn to Jerome are not nine to five people. And our history is not nine to five,” says Burcham. “So if there’s a person in trouble – and Jerome will tell you, sometimes we get phone calls at 10 o’clock at night, at three in the morning – if I get a phone call, I know I can call Jerome [to help] a guy in the streets that’s really needing help. He’s gonna be right there. He knows the language of the streets. He understands the addiction. He’s a tremendous resource for people who are trying to do the right thing but they’re in battle, and that’s because there is a constant battle with somebody who’s addicted.”
Anderson humbly plays it right back into the ministry. “If it wasn’t for P.U.S.H., you know, or if it wasn’t for me meeting Jill, I wouldn’t probably be here. I’m telling you, that’s the honest to God truth,” he says. “She helps me no matter what. If I go through something, I can tell her anything, she keeps it honest and I keep it honest with her. And that’s what we try to do here.”
Galax isn’t a major crime hub, but that doesn’t mean Convicted Hearts is often idle. “What you have to understand, you see a lot in the prison system,” says Burcham. “Somebody may live in Indiana, but may be passing through Galax or Carroll or Grayson county, and have committed a crime. They go to [the New River Valley Regional Jail in] Dublin; they’re bringing them back here.”
Some people find Convicted Hearts that way; others come through the Life Center or other local organizations; some just wander in on their own. All are welcome.
Anderson and Burcham believe that anyone can turn a sad, empty, ruined life around and become whole, happy and fulfilled.
The setting certainly helps, Anderson says.
“Galax is sort of different. I came up here, and that was a big change in my life. ‘Cause I’m used to the city, the fastness. But it’s so slow up here, it scared me,” he laughs. “But then I realized that this is what I need. I just stayed up here because it was peaceful. It was bad down there. Drug activity, going in and out of jail. Up here, I didn’t worry about nobody trying to shoot me or beating me up. I could leave my door open.”
Anderson’s main concern now isn’t dodging bullets or knives; it’s intercepting people who need help and guiding them to his ministry’s services.
“I want to say this about Convicted Hearts: we need some artists,” says Anderson. “I wish people would come, I don’t care if they write poetry. We could all sit down and put something together, and we could all show what you can do to take your mind off other things. ‘Cause if I wasn’t here, man, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Anderson, with the zeal of a crusader, says he’d like to expand Convicted Hearts’ scope. “It’s not even just for people coming out of jail. It’s for people who just sit at home and don’t got nothin’ to do, and want something’ to do. They could come down here and just paint. They could bring a kid down here and I could show ‘em how to do a card. I’ve been trying to tell people that. They can do clothing, T-shirts, drawing, poetry, music. I love all of that stuff.
“It’s supposed to be a ministry... It’s got art in it, you know. That’s what it’s about.”
• P.U.S.H. Ministries offers a number of programs for the community, including Convicted Hearts, Women of Purpose, Chain Breakers, Restoring Hands, Follow Me, Encouraging Moments, Surrogate Daughter, Feed the 5000 and others. To find out more, seek their help, volunteer or make a donation, visit them at 117 N. Main St. in Galax, call (276) 235-1059 or go to www.pushministries.org.