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Led to Places He Did Not Want to Go but Could Not Imagine Never Having Been

by Michelle Vecchio-Lyzenga

 

Jim McCloskey (M.Div., 1984) was living the good life. After three years serving as a naval officer in Japan and Vietnam and five years working in Tokyo as a business executive, Jim had returned to his native Philadelphia in 1973 and joined a reputable global management consulting firm, The Hay Group.  He was a successful businessman with a cushy income, a house of his own, and a slick Lincoln Continental Town Car. He had it all. Or so he was told.

Raised in a conservative evangelical church, Jim had walked away from the church during his undergraduate years at Bucknell University but, fourteen years later, having taken the position with The Hay Group and settled down in Paoli, Pennsylvania, felt that something was missing. “What I was missing was the spiritual dimension to my life. I’d lost my way, I think. I wanted to get back to the way I was,” he explained. Jim decided it was time to return to the church. He soon joined Paoli Presbyterian Church, but something still felt off. “I was leading two lives. I was one person in the corporate world and another person in my private world, ” Jim confessed. Torn between these two worlds, Jim looked to Richard Streeter, the pastor of Paoli Presbyterian Church, as a role model. “He was effecting the lives of others—he was reaching people’s hearts and souls. And I wasn’t reaching anybody’s heart or soul in my profession; I was reaching people’s pocketbooks. And that was very unfulfilling,” said Jim. 

Reading John 21 one Saturday evening, Jim was struck by Jesus’ proclamation to Peter that, in his old age, the apostle would be led to places he did not want to go. That Monday morning, Jim met with Richard Streeter and explained his desire to leave business and enter pastoral ministry. Streeter, a Princeton Theological Seminary alumnus (Class of 1959), encouraged him in this decision and insisted Jim attend his alma mater. In 1979, at the age of thirty-seven, Jim announced his plans to the firm, rented his home, packed up his Lincoln Town Car, and moved into Princeton Seminary’s Brown Hall. The businessman had turned seminarian.

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The turning point of Jim’s seminary education came in the fall of 1980 during his field education placement at Trenton State Prison. As a student chaplain, Jim was assigned two tiers of inmates in the maximum security wing of the prison—forty men altogether—whose cells he visited two afternoons each week. Over the course of months, Jim got to know the inmates, including one Jorge De Los Santos or “Chiefie,” a Newark, New Jersey, native who had been sentenced to life in prison in 1975 for the murder of a Newark used car dealership owner. Having already served several years in prison by the time Jim met him, De Los Santos was nevertheless still “vehemently proclaiming his innocence.” Jim was intrigued by Chiefie’s story and his claims of innocence. “I thought at that time that America had the best criminal justice system imaginable. I couldn’t believe that an innocent person would be convicted in America,” said Jim. Determined to discover the truth regarding De Los Santos, Jim carefully read through the inmate’s trial transcripts and soon became convinced of his innocence.

Convicted by Chiefie’s plight and ready to take a break from the scholastic life, Jim took a one-year leave of absence from the Seminary in order to work full time on Chiefie’s case. He raised a $7,500 grant through the national Presbyterian church and formed a committee—the committee to free Jorge De Los Santos.  “I had no experience whatsoever—in any way, shape, or form—with the criminal justice system. I hadn’t even been asked as a juror,” remarked Jim.  Nevertheless, with resolute persistence and the help of Hoboken, New Jersey, defense attorney Paul Casteleiro, the two men managed to exonerate De Los Santos on July 26, 1983.

This experience with De Los Santos transformed Jim’s sense of call. During his interviews on behalf of the inmate, Jim met two other New Jersey “lifers” in whose innocence he also came to believe. He had found his calling. Rather than pursue ordination, Jim’s ministry would be freeing the innocent.  Using the $10,000 gift he had recently received from his parents and working from his small rented room in a house on Library Place in Princeton, Jim founded Centurion Ministries, Inc. (CM), a non-profit corporation whose mission is to “vindicate and free from prison those individuals in the United States and Canada who are factually innocent of the crimes for which they have been unjustly convicted and imprisoned for life or death.”  Jim drew the corporation’s name from the Roman centurion soldier who stood at the foot of the cross in Luke 23:47 and proclaimed, “Surely this one is innocent.” (NRSV)

Jim’s decision to devote his life to freeing men and women from jail garnered him the censure of some, such as his old boss at The Hay Group, who, seeing Jim one night at a wedding reception and learning of Centurion Ministries, told Jim that he was a fool and was wasting his life. Jim could not have disagreed more. “I knew, I just knew,” he said. “I had a clear and compelling sense of call. I found my calling, my niche, what I was born to do. I felt joy—finally, at the age of forty-one! I was elated and happy and felt fulfilled.”  

Today, more than thirty years later, Jim’s sense of calling remains as strong as ever. With fifty-one exonerations to its name, Centurion Ministries has grown in size and scope, consisting of seven staff members and approximately twenty volunteers and receiving nearly 1,200 petitions each year from inmates across the United Sates and Canada. While Centurion Ministries cannot take on all of the petitions it receives due to limitations in time and money (CM pays for all the expenses of the more than five-year judicial process—which costs between $100,000 and $500,000—and receives its operating funds solely through donations and grants), it nevertheless reads and responds to each and every petition. “We give hope and sustenance to many inmates across the country, even if we don’t take on their cases. We care about them, we show them respect, we’re interested in their plights, we want to learn as much about their situations as we can, and we’re listening to them, so they feel like we care about them as individuals,” said Jim.

For those inmates whose petitions are accepted for review and whose written records and in-depth interviews convince Centurion Ministries of their factual innocence and integrity, CM’s care extends to exonertion and beyond. During the ten years it takes on average for Centurion Ministries to vet a case and commit to it, reinvestigate, and go through the various judicial proceedings, “we become not only their advocates but their friends. There’s a personal relationship that has taken place,” explained Jim. As such, Centurion Ministries’ connection with those men and women it helps exonerate does not end with their release from prison. “We help them get employment, serving as references to the extent we can. We serve as a financial bridge, perhaps helping them financially—subsidizing rent or buying them clothes—until they’re able to get on their feet again. We introduce them to the people in their neighborhood and city. We help them in whatever way we can to get reintegrated and back on their feet to begin to live a normal, law-abiding life.”

At seventy-one years old, Jim is still as active as ever, traveling across the country for interviews with inmates and for court cases. Though featured in countless newspapers and magazines for his ground-breaking work with Centurion Ministries—the most recent being a feature in People magazine—Jim remains incredibly humble and personable, emphasizing how much the work of CM has been a blessing for him as much as it has been a blessing for others. “It’s unbelievable that I stumbled into this. I thank God for opening this door for me and leading me into it because, without this work, I’d be lost. And I’m not lost; I’m found, and in finding myself, I’ve helped find new life, along with my team here at CM, for those wrongly confined in prison. By giving them new life, I receive new life.”