Bernard Addison, age 63, is remembered by many as a successful person. He worked his way through college to become an award-winning news reporter followed by an award-winning businessman.
When the Rev. John Gargis met him in summer 2012, Addison was homeless and facing prison. He stored his awards in the trunk of his car.
“Bernard said to me, ‘I’d like to join your church, but I’ve got these charges pending,’” says Gargis, remembering the first visits Addison made to Lincoln Park United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.
“I said, ‘Bernard, I would rather you be a member of our church in jail than not to be a member.”
Today, Addison is seven months into his 46-month sentence for conspiracy to commit mail fraud. He’ll spend the holidays behind bars in an Atlanta prison camp.
He will not spend his confinement alone, however.
“I depend on God to get me through the day,” Addison said in a recent email. “I trust in God that I will return home, that I do not need to fear for my safety or the future.”
He also has his fellow inmates, who “look out for each other,” his pastor, and his new church friends.
“He’s got these sweet older church members who fell in love with him, who pray for him and send him magazines,” says Gargis. “I call them the ‘Sweet Angels.’ They are so inviting and accepting.”
Pastor Gargis first met Addison at Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM), where Gargis is also director of development. The federal defender handling Addison’s case helped him get into the homeless shelter shortly after he was arrested and charged.
A native of Memphis, Tenn., Addison moved to Knoxville in 1969, after graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in the top of his class. His mother raised him and his two sisters on a waitress’ salary.
“She worked at a place called The Hitchin’ Post on Beale Street,” Addison says. “She used to tell me about meeting B.B. King and how he always called her ‘little girl.’”
Addison was anxious to get away from his hometown. “Too many bad memories. The overt racism. The garbage-man strikes and the riots and demonstrations that followed. The murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. The death of a high school classmate, killed in Vietnam,” he said. “Let me go to school anywhere but Memphis.”
He worked his way through the University of Tennessee, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communications in 1977. He was hired as a news reporter at two radio stations, WKGN followed by WIVK, where he won awards for his public affairs and political reporting.
“I knew what I wanted to do. I just focused on it,” Addison says. He was encouraged by his mother, who suffered from a debilitating stroke when she was 25.
“I admired her determination as she dealt with her problems caused by the stroke. She lost the use of her entire left side,” he said. “I heard her pray and ask God to heal her. It never happened. So for a long time I did not have any interest in church.”
In 1994, Addison left broadcasting for insurance and investments, where he also excelled. He was married for a while but never had children.
“I pursued worldly goals like making more money, getting a better place to live, buying better clothes or better cars,” Addison says. “In the end none of this stuff really matters.”
In 2009, the insurance company where Addison worked as an office manager closed. “The owner blamed the economy, so at the age of 60 I started to search for a job.”
He searched for two years without luck. In May 2011 Addison suffered a mild stroke. While he was hospitalized, he lost the home he rented with a friend. He lived in a motel, until out of desperation, he accepted a job offer from a man named Frank with a “secret shopper” business.
Addison’s job was to send welcoming kits with surveys and money orders to “shoppers” who joined Frank’s business. The money orders were fake and the business was a scam, as Addison learned when a postal inspector came to his motel room. Addison resigned and signed a “cease and desist” letter with the postal inspector.
Two months later, Frank contacted Addison again, saying that he had cleared up the situation. “In my heart, I knew he was lying,” Addison said, “but I had $800 left and was concerned about being homeless. So I started work again.”
In April 2012, Addison was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud. He checked into KARM, where he followed through on a promise he made to God to be baptized.
During his months of unemployment, he had begun to read the Bible and pray, Addison explained. “I was praying to God for help, but I felt God had more important things on his mind than the troubles of Bernard Addison. I was wrong.”
He also watched a Sunday-morning TV show, “Rejoice,” produced by Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville. “I felt good about Andy Ferguson,” Addison says about Church Street’s senior pastor, “and I liked what I knew about the Methodist church.”
At KARM, Addison made new friends and was baptized by Chaplain Mychal Spence.
“When Bernard first came to KARM, he was amazed that so many people cared for him,” says Gargis. “But the people who come to KARM usually lack two things: family members and a church family. So when they begin to fall, no one is there to catch them.”
One of his new friends, Rick Gouge, kept telling Addison about the great church he attended, which happened to be United Methodist.
"He said it was like a country church in the city with an older congregation,” Addison said. “I finally went and fell in love with Pastor John and the Lincoln Park congregation.”
In February 2013, Addison became a church member and helped his pastor serve Holy Communion. On April 1, the day after Easter, he reported to the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta. His release date is April 2016.
“He was at peace when he left,” Gargis says. “He was more at peace than we were.”
For the next three years, Addison’s home is a prison camp, where he lives in a dormitory with 53 other men. “Most of these men were businessmen or other professionals,” he says, “so it’s a good crowd. None of them are violent offenders … I have come to care for each and every one of them.”
His mattress is thin and hurts his back. He walks with a cane, and the prison boots hurt his legs. Yet he gives thanks that he is permitted to send emails to his friends, sharing one computer with his 53 dorm mates.
He is thankful for many things.
“The Bible is a great source of comfort,” he writes. “And I thank God for the brothers and sisters in Christ at Lincoln Park, for their prayers and their concerns.”
When he was a child, his family did not attend church, Addison says. “As an adult, I stayed away from the church because it was too political. About 10 years ago, I started thinking about my salvation. But it took being homeless for me to join a church.”
“Guys like Bernard teach us that there are no categories,” Gargis said. “We develop categories like homeless, prisoner, prostitute, and drug addict. When you hear their stories or get involved in the messiness of their lives, you realize there is only one category: human being.”
This truth leads to the Gospels, says Gargis, “where we are taught to love others as Christ loved us.”