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Joe Jenkins is the founder of the BRAVE Effect. Once considered one of the "worst of the worst" criminals in Chattanooga, he now mentors inmates re-entering society. / Photo by David Cook

Eight years ago, I first met Joe Jenkins.

Well, I didn't really meet him. Only saw his photo.

His mugshot.

His front-page mugshot.

In Nov. 2013, police arrested 32 local Black men, including Jenkins, for dealing drugs. Authorities called them "the worst of the worst." Jenkins' mugshot — and 31 others — appeared on the front page.

Armed with assumptions and judgment, I wrote a column about Jenkins, his brother — also arrested — and the local drug trade; it was flippant, alarmist and inappropriate. Later, he would tell me that of all the "worst of the worst" press, that column cut him deepest.

Yes, Jenkins dealt drugs. That was his crime.

But mine?

I never looked past the mugshot. I forgot that Jenkins, no matter his crime, was a beloved child of God.

That he, too, was capable of transformation.

"I was named the worst of the worst," he said. "Can you imagine that feeling?"

Several months ago, I met Joe Jenkins again.

I got to apologize.

I was wrong, so wrong. Jenkins? The worst?

He's one of the best men I've met in a long time.

***

They called him a ghetto hero. On the Chattanooga streets, he was "the heaviest." A decade ago, Jenkins could "easily, effortlessly" see $6,000 in drug money pass through his hands each day.

But it was dead, such money; there was no life in it. A little voice in Jenkins kept whispering: This is not you.

Through the gang-banging and dealing, Jenkins never stopped praying. (Don't be surprised. The gang-bangers' prayer is one of the most precious prayers offered in this city.)

"I'd leave the club to go to church," he said. "I'd be up all night and go to church."

One Sunday morning after a hot Saturday night, he came down for an altar call, praying: God, take this lifestyle.

Jenkins went clean. Stopped dealing and took a $15-an-hour job. Police, deep into their investigation, found him there.

"They picked me up off a forklift," he said. "I asked God: 'What is going on?'"

Jenkins remembers God responding: Do you still trust me?

Awaiting trial, Jenkins met his court-appointed attorney, Leslie Cory. Jenkins, down and out, asked her point-blank: "What do you think of me?"

"I told him the truth," Cory said. "I was disappointed."

When some of us only saw a mugshot of a dealer, Cory saw potential and promise, Jenkins' true self yet to be unearthed.

"He had the potential to be a community leader, and he was frittering that potential away," the longtime attorney said. "I told him he needed to stop railing at the system and start focusing on how he was going to turn his life around."

Shaken to his core, Jenkins looked her in the eye and responded:

"I still can," he said.

From federal prison, Jenkins began to rebuild his life. Studied law. Mentored by wiser inmates, like Leon Johnson, who had created his own re-entry program.

"Joe didn't just take the course once but he took it twice," Johnson wrote in a letter.

From his West Virginia cell, Jenkins created multiple business plans for his release; Wrote letters to Oprah, Bob Corker, former mayor Andy Berke, letting them know of his transformation.

Then, he created his signature program: the BRAVE Effect.

"It is possible to leave a disreputable and dangerous life behind and move forward," Jenkins declared. "I am proof."

The BRAVE Effect — for building relationships and valuable encounters — is an eight-week curriculum for incarcerated citizens. It examines internal and external forces — from patterns of thinking to etiquette to forming a business plan. How do I find a job? How do I keep my mind straight? The BRAVE Effect helps inmates find answers.

"You've got to have a plan. I don't care if they write it on toilet paper," Jenkins said. "You just need to write it down so we can get structure."

In 2018, Jenkins was released. Today, he uses the BRAVE Effect to counsel inmates in multiple prisons. (Cory, his attorney, is on the board of the newly organized nonprofit.) He also works for Project Return, a state-wide re-entry program.

Jenkins also works at a local factory. A heavy machine operator, he gave up countless lunch breaks to learn to weld. Now, he's certified.

He's an entrepreneur, homeowner, motivational speaker and mentor who volunteers at local schools. (Your church? School? Book club? Invite him.) Smiling that genuine smile, Jenkins has North-Star-situated his life around helping others.

"I realized there is more than one harvest," he wrote in 2018. "The seeds of yesterday can be tossed, and I am in perfect position to plant new ones of virtuous values. These new seeds will grow into a bountiful harvest, full of the good that life has to offer."

Put him on the front page again.

Joe Jenkins, with his new hustle: dealing hope.

For more information or to help sponsor coaching for an inmate, visit thebraveeffect.org, call 423-693-5961 or email thebravee4@gmail.com.

"I thank the city of Chattanooga for opening their arms for me," he said. "It's heartfelt how some put aside what they saw and gave me an opportunity to be one of the best of the best. I go from 32 to No. 1."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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