Former prisoner embraces role as chaplain

Even now, Omar Howard’s past hangs over him like a dark cloud.

But he presses on, remembering the prison chaplains who poured encouragement into his life, passed on their faith when he needed it most.

And so despite the constant struggle to leave his past behind, Howard, 39, of Stone Mountain, labors daily to be the difference in the lives of the 280 inmates housed at the Atlanta Transitional Center.

"He's always reaching out to others, always lending a hand," said Andrea Shelton, founder of HeartBound Ministries, which supports and funds prison chaplains at facilities where there are none. "He wants to do for others what someone did for him."

As the center’s newest chaplain, it has been his job for the past three years to inspire inmates to turn from lives of crime and become productive citizens just as his predecessor, Climon Nix, did for him.

Nix, Howard said, changed his life.

“He took a personal interest in my life,” he said. “He told me one day, ‘Omar, the mark of a man is one who wakes up every morning, able to handle multiple crises, and still keeps his balance.’”

“That’s what I have to do,” he said.

A path that led to prison

Howard brings a unique perspective to prison chaplaincy. Having served nearly half his life in prison, he’s walked in the shoes of many an inmate.

He was just 17 when the lure of fast money landed him in jail, facing a robbery charge and 18 months’ probation.

“It spooked me for a couple of months, but then I started right back up,” he said.

Before long, he dropped out of school. Simple robbery escalated to armed robbery. And by 1993, he had two sons.

Feeling the pressure to provide for them, Howard joined a group of friends to do another robbery. He was 15 feet away from the door when one of them accidentally shot the homeowner in the head, killing him.

Howard, then 18, was arrested and charged with multiple counts, including armed robbery and aggravated assault. Two months later, the murder charge in the death of Clarence Cooper was added.

Howard, who maintains his innocence in the murder and has since apologized to the family for his part in Cooper’s death, accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

He was in the DeKalb County jail, awaiting a transfer to Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Ga., when he decided he’d had enough.

“I was determined to be different, but I knew I couldn’t do it myself,” he said. “I cried out to God to save my life, change me.”

Hopes of redemption

Howard knew Lee Arrendale was a tough place. When he arrived on Dec. 8, 1993, his worse fears were confirmed.

Inmates called him cute. Sexy. They threatened to rape him.

Afraid of appearing soft, Howard hid his Bible but remained steadfast in the faith. He had goals he wanted to fulfill, including getting his GED and an associate degree.

He joined a prison choir, hoping to meet female volunteers.

“It was for the wrong reason, but it ended up being the best decision I’d made in a long time,” Howard said. “It put me around a lot of good brothers focused on doing what was right.”

In 2001, Howard was transferred to the Al Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, an hour south of Atlanta.

The prison chaplain began to notice his dedication. The staff invited him to mentor incoming juvenile defenders and to facilitate the prison’s Scared Straight program.

“That gave my life purpose,” Howard said.

It also led him to fellow inmate Mark Spencer, Shelton’s big brother, who was serving seven years for serious injury by motor vehicle.

It was spring 2003. Howard had learned his mother was seriously ill, and he was hoping to be paroled. Spencer encouraged him to reach out to Shelton.

Her brother “knew Omar was the real deal,” Shelton said.

The next day, he called Shelton and shared his story. She promised to bring his mother for a visit. Before ending the call, Shelton prayed for healing.

Months later, Howard was transferred to the Atlanta Transitional Center, where he would eventually lead church services, start a choir, meet Nix, and in 2005, Shelton herself.

Shelton had heard the choir and was visiting the transitional center one day to invite them to sing at her church.

She was on her way out when Nix introduced her to Howard.

“As we talked, I said, ‘Wait a minute. You’re Omar. I prayed with you on the phone.’”

Twice Howard had sought parole, but each time it was denied. He asked Shelton for help and in 2007, after years of writing letters to the parole board, he was finally released.

Then Nix died. Just as he made peace with Nix’s death, Howard met Lucy Cooper, the mother of the man he’d been accused of murdering.

Howard had long wanted to apologize, and when he got the chance, Cooper was all too willing to extend an olive branch.

“If we can’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven,” she said. “It wasn’t hard because I never believed it was him in the first place.”

Cooper invited Howard to dinner, and he has been in her life ever since.

“I could see the good in him,” she said.

So could Shelton. With Nix’s passing, she knew the entire culture of the center depended on the chaplaincy department.

“Chaplains are islands in a cesspool,” she said. “If you take God out of Omar’s story, there’s no story. It’s God who sustains them and changes their lives. They need that reminder and guiding force.”

She asked Howard to step into that role with help from HeartBound Ministries.

“It would have been so easy for Omar to walk away from the prison system and never look back, but he couldn’t,” Shelton said. “He’s got a chaplain’s heart.”

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