Fork in the road leads from prison to productive life

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

In college, Nathan Vey started using marijuana, drank heavily then began manufacturing and using crystal methamphetamine.

"It was a very rough time in my life," he said. "In 2006 I was high on crystal and corn whiskey -- I had a passion for making my own moonshine. I made a really, really poor decision that seemed like a great idea at the time."

He was helping organize an electronic dance music event -- a rave -- and needed a projector for the main stage. He broke into a church and stole one. "I was concerned with no one else or nothing else," Vey said. "I was not concerned with the community or how it would affect people. I was caught up in my own selfish desire to fulfill what I wanted because I was the only thing that mattered. I was so caught up in addiction and being a selfish, self-centered person that it did not enter my mind that this was not right."

Vey's wrong turn on the road of life took a right turn in 2010 when he was on his way to obtain drugs from a dealer inside the prison where he was sentenced to spend five years of his life. He saw a sign along his route that advertised an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He chose to go to the meeting instead of buying the drugs.

The choice, he said, saved his life and led to a sober life, a life dedicated to others. His sponsor connected him to the Criminal Justice Ministry of the archdiocese and the support he needed to continue changing his life.

Vey grew up in Stewartsville, a small town in northwest Missouri. He has been blind since birth, with no sight with one eye and 5 percent with the other. He was in school for kindergarten and first grade, home-schooled until 15, then attended the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis.

After graduating, he became engaged to a woman he met there. The relationship didn't work out, and at age 22 his life went on a downslide. A life of drug abuse and crime was not how he was raised, he said, commending his parents and citing his grandfather as his hero and role model growing up.

Vey was linked with the burglary soon after the rave. A woman he knew was caught with meth, and to get favorable treatment told the police that he had taken the projector. Vey admitted the theft, pleaded guilty to felony burglary and received a suspended-imposition sentence of five years' probation. He continued to get in trouble and after four years and what he calls a fair share of chances, his probation was revoked. The judge ordered him to spend five years in the state Department of Corrections.

He felt broken and alone, even beyond hating himself.

But the help he found in prison led him to start feeling God's love inside of him and a return to being a human being again.

"Through God interceding in my life, I got hooked up with the Criminal Justice Ministry," he said. He learned that "not only did I damage my life, but I harmed people I didn't know" through criminal thinking, he said. "I put a hole in the fabric of the community that I came from."

He was released after a year in prison and was met by a Criminal Justice Ministry caseworker who helped him get an apartment through the Release to Rent program of the ministry. That was three years ago, and he now gives back to the ministry as a volunteer, helping with computers and other work as well as assisting with programs of the Immigrant and Refugee Women's Program.

One day last week he was planning to help an antiques dealer clear out some old refrigerators -- with an assist from a parish-based group that hauls away scrap metal, sells it and donates the money to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Vey often works for a developer in building demolition, tearing out plaster walls and paving the way for renovation of buildings.

"To me, restorative justice is making the community I live a better place," Vey explained. Along with the support of his family, "the Criminal Justice Ministry gave me my life. They loved me and supported me when others weren't willing to do that. They housed me and fed me, and all they said was come to these meetings, go to your AA and work on being a productive member of society."

God now works through him, he said. "This is me being willing to accept God's love into my heart and to let God use me in whatever way He deems necessary. I don't get to pick who I help or how I help. I just have to be there."

Sister Carleen Reck, SSND, director of the Criminal Justice Ministry, said individuals such as Vey helped by the ministry grab the opportunity and turn around and ask what they can do for others. "They want to give back."

Restorative justice

Catholic Charities of St. Louis will host the 28th annual Social Action Summer Institute, "Setting the Captives Free: Embracing Christ in the Victim, Offender and Community," a national conference on restorative justice in St. Louis, July 20-24.

The conference will provide information on international restorative justice efforts — offenders making amends to the community for their crimes rather than being punished strictly as retribution for their crimes. Five speakers and immersion trips in the community are included. Nathan Vey, who has been assisted by the Criminal Justice Ministry of the archdiocese, will take part in a panel discussion on restorative justice from the viewpoint of offenders, victims and the community. Scholarship opportunities are available. Visit www.CatholicRoundtable.org to see the full agenda and to register. For more information, contact Meg Olson at (314) 367-5500, ext. 1128 or molson@ccstl.org.

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