The city of Wyoming resident is articulate, focused and determined to make something of his life following his release from prison for a sex offense.
Johnson credits his new outlook on life to an enduring relationship he's gained with Jesus Christ and the mentoring and support services he received from 70x7 Life Recovery, a local Christian nonprofit that imparts guidance and employment opportunities to men and women released from jail or prison.
Inspired back to life
"This is what helped inspired me back to life," says Johnson, 45. "I know God has given me the ability to use my circumstances to help other people. My attitude has changed."
70x7 has enabled many others to gain a new lease on life.
The faith-based organization started at a Holland church in 1996 as a 12-step program for addiction recovery.
Then 70x7 morphed in 2005 as a nonprofit that helps people re-enter the community after serving time in jail or prison with support services and programs that enable them to get a firm footing in life.
Those who enroll in 70x7's programs are called participants, with the goal of becoming graduates. It has two locations where it holds meetings: Moran Park Church in Holland and Kentwood Community Church's Wyoming campus.
No one-size-fits all
There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits all mentality to 70x7's programs. They include its reentry program that provides training and coaching in life skills; church partnerships that minister to inmates while serving time in jail or prison and their families outside of incarceration; life skills for women; and collaboration with about 50 agencies that adroitly solve former inmates' challenges such as addictions, mental health and housing.
Support services following a needs assessment include the use of donated bicycles; bus passes; clothing; hygiene kits; 12-week Take Charge Group for women who need help with basic life skills; Reentry Networking Lunch that connects 70x7 participants, volunteers and staff connect with community resource agencies; and Stronger Together Family Support Services.
Get to root causes
"Part of what we want to do is serve the hardest to serve," says Benjamin Rosa, executive director for 70x7's Grand Rapids-Wyoming campus. "It's a tough population to work with but ... we've chosen to work with anybody who walks through that door.
"For us here we get into the root causes so we can get into the issues," continues Rosa. "It's important to formulate a plan but we don't delve into the nitty gritty details because it's hard for them to talk about it. We just want to know basics: was it substance abuse, poor choices?"
A clog of news reports tout the number of ex-cons who re-commit crimes and are returned to prison. 70x7 up ends that trend with a recidivism rate of 3.93% compared to 29.8% for the state of Michigan and 50% nationally.
Last year, 280 people participated in 70x7's programs or related services, and of that number, 179 graduated from its jobs readiness course.
Help also is available for family members of the incarcerated.
"There's a lot of shame and guilt especially if it's a sex offense," says Rosa. "They need to get that off their chest. If they get around other people who have gone through it, they support each other."
Finding a job and staying employed
There's a difference between landing a job and staying employed once former inmates are hired. 70x7 staff and volunteers are fully aware of this hitch.
"A lot of guys can get jobs, they just can't keep them for different reasons," says Rosa. "Our programming is designed for retention. It's soft skills and conflict resolution — all those things that help them from not getting fired. There's also Serving Together (program), and what they do is work for a church for two to three hours and the church feeds them and the mentors works with them to see if they're on time because if they can't get there on time, they'll mess up at a job. It's a time to coach their behavior."
That's a key reason why partnerships with churches and area agencies are vital to 70x7's mission, say Rosa, and as a result, the nonprofit does not try to be all things to its participants.
"Our folks don't come with one issue," says Rosa. "Mental health, trauma, we partner with folks who handle it better."
Despite the fact 70x7 is rooted in Christ, no one is strong-armed to convert and no judgment is cast on them.
"We don't ask people what they believe in," says Rosa. "We have atheists, we have Muslims, you name it. They know we're going to plant seeds. Our faith walk is 100%. Our staff, though not perfect, walks it out every day as broken vessels. As an organization, we just love them and plant seeds. That's our goal: To have that faith-walk, planting seeds, mentorship and employment."
Forgiveness is everything
The faith-based nonprofit's name alludes to Matthew 18:21:22, where Jesus' reply to Peter's question about how many times should he forgive someone who's sinned against him was 70x7.
"Forgiveness is everything," says Marybeth Sims, 70x7's donor relations manager. "The participates have to forgive themselves. They need to seek the forgiveness. We help them look forward, to deal with the guilt and shame."
A new outlook on life forges freedom, adds Sims.
"Freed for life is our new tagline," says Sims. "Free to do whatever God wants them to do. Not what they want to do, what God wants them to do."
One element of 70x7 that has helped to ease suspicion and build a bridge of understanding is when police officers interact with participants for a heart-to-heart dialogue.
"We have two rules: No questions are off the table and you have to be respectful to each other," says Rosa. "You don't have to agree but you have to respectful."
And that is one more example of making choices, which is what 70x7 is about.
"I always tell them the short answer is Jesus but then put on top of that, life choices," says Rosa. "Every one of us who did something, we made choices. A mistake to me is when you trip but a lot of us made choices. I like choices better than mistakes. The answer for us is Jesus.
Johnson wholeheartedly agrees with Rosa.
"I've finally developed a personal relationship with God through Christ," says Johnson. "The shame and the guilt of the things that I did have lifted. My conversation with God has changed. All the cravings and misery started lifting.
"I was able to get through it."