Throwing their square caps and tassles in the air, about 150 ex-cons graduated Sunday from a unique church program that seeks to turn one-time criminals into productive citizens.
Bishop T.D. Jakes of The Potter’s House started the Texas Offenders Re-Entry Initiative, or TORI, about five years ago.
"I really do think that the church can play a part, uniquely apart, from social services that are done in the secular system,” Jakes said. “It's very important we blend faith into this process because faith becomes the fuel that gives people the power to change their lives."
He said he is now committed to turning his life around.
"Got tired,” he said. “Got tired of doing the same-old nothing. Got sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Jakes said the program reaches out to convicted felons who want to be helped. It is open to anyone of any faith – not just membersof the church.
He said he was motivated by statistics that show more than half of the ex-offenders who leave prison return within three years.
"I'd like to see us stop the propensity we have today of making a big business out of incarceration,” Jakes said. “I'm trying to show the benefits to rehabiliation."
Nixon and the others graduated after completing 12 months in the program.
"I really feel good about myself,” he said. “Instead of wondering if the cops are going to come knocking on the door or getting shot in the back of the head for doing things that I've done to them."
TORI helps provide participants with housing and a job -- two things many ex-convicts have trouble finding.
The rules are strict. The success rate is about 40 percent, Jakes said.
A number of public officials attended the graduation ceremony, including U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, and Fort Worth police chief Jeff Halstead.
Jeff Henderson, who spent 10 years in prison for a drug conviction, challenged the graduates to stay away from trouble. Henderson, now a chef and author, hosts a show on the Food Network.
Several Dallas County judges handed out the diplomas.
When Nixon's name was called, he said he felt nervous but proud.
"Ohhh, I wanted to scream,” he said. “I just wanted to hollar and scream."