Running for a second chance
A criminal court judge discovers running as a road to recovery for people on skid row
By Mary V. Cass
Los Angeles Criminal Court Judge Craig Mitchell firmly believes that one horrendous act does not define a person in his or her entirety. Combining that belief with his passion for running has led to the beginning of a running club, where the homeless and addicted of Los Angeles’ skid row find new hope, dignity and love.
In 2012 an ex-inmate, touched by how the judge had treated him while having to sentence him to prison, asked Mitchell to visit the people at the Los Angeles Midnight Mission. It was there that Mitchell discovered a way to impact lives in a manner that he felt he could never do as a judge.
Where did his initial drive to help people come from?
“I grew up in a home where my parents were very much aware of the social needs of others, particularly the disenfranchised and alienated,” says Mitchell. This, plus his 17 years of teaching in an inner-city school, made him comfortable with reaching out to people who didn’t look like him and didn’t share his experience.
For sure his faith plays a role in shaping his view. “I had always seen my students as children of God, with dreams that I could encourage and help them to realize. So, when Roderick came to my courtroom and asked me to come down to the notorious skid row, I was comfortable doing that.”
From there it was only putting two pieces of a puzzle together. “I had experienced the therapeutic benefits of running in my own life and wanted to see if people in recovery could share in these same benefits,” he says. Besides the physiological gains, running together creates a sense of community, and that is especially important for the homeless.
“People on skid row have lost contact with their families. So to provide a situation where they spend time with people who care about them, who share their aspirations, can be life changing,” he says. “Becoming a family — this is the most important dynamic of the program.”
It is educational as well in the sense that they have to make sure that those running with them get there too; they arrive at the goal, but not alone.
“I come back to the courthouse after every run and check off who was there, so I know exactly who has been faithful to the running program and who just comes periodically,” he said. Every year Mitchell takes his most dedicated skid row runners on a free trip to participate in an international marathon. So far they have been to Ghana, Rome, Vietnam and Jerusalem.
Mitchell’s Catholic education taught him to fully embrace others as they are. “The priest and nuns I worked with conveyed to me that all the instruction you give matters little if the person before you is not loved.”
An important benefit of running is that it makes everyone equal. “When you’re out there no one cares if Craig Mitchell is a superior court judge — the important thing is if I can cover the 26.2 miles to reach the goal!”
Extending the life lessons
A goal is not reached without a struggle. Even if a situation turns out to be a disaster, he tries to convey that although life is difficult, change is possible.
“It was unfair that my mother died at 39 when I was only 9 years old. Life treats us differently,” he says.
Not every one of his running mates makes it to turn their life around. “I could name person after person who has been part of the running club and relapsed when at a certain point the drugs won out. But I have also experienced the story of the Prodigal Son. We didn’t see one guy for two years — he had relapsed, then he recovered again and rejoined the running club.”
He believes that with God’s grace, everything is possible. “There was a woman whom I had sent to jail for selling drugs and for violent assault. Today she was thrilled to tell me she is out, clean, and finishing her AA degree.”
The Gospel fosters relationships, and eventually a real community comes to life. A person who is at the beginning of recovery needs a sponsor, a person who walks with him or her through the stages of recovery, someone who can intervene if there is a temptation to relapse.
“The older members of our program are the sponsors for those who are just at the beginning. Ben, who has been a member of the club almost from its start, has maintained sobriety for more than six years. He and others who act as sponsors are the real deal. I don’t have to shoulder the entire burden — it’s love that continues in the community through them,” says Mitchell.
Continuity is another key for the running club’s success. “They know that every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday, at 5:30 am, Judge Mitchell will be outside the mission. If Mitchell says he’s going to get me shoes, or enroll me in a marathon, it’s going to happen. Luckily the generosity of people who support us continues to make it happen.”
Group members are Christians, Jews, Muslims and non-believers; they share a bond that creates family. And this example inspires other people to establish something similar.
“My hope is that the running club will continue,” says Mitchell. “There are similar running clubs already established throughout the country. We have a great board who finds jobs and housing for our runners and donations for attendance in marathons.”
The running club has existed for eight years now. Mitchell has seen people attend college, secure full-time employment and maintain sobriety, while others relapse and are tormented by the consequences of addiction again. Between 300–500 people have run with the group since the beginning of the program, which has now become an official nonprofit organization.
His own spirituality has been strengthened in this eight-year journey with the club. “I see the Gospel in a different way — with a deeper understanding, and time itself has benefited me in this respect. My favorite Bible quote is, ‘What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul in the process?’ (Mk 8:36). My friends on skid row confirm that the Gospel messages deserve to be paid attention to.”
Mitchell saw the potential of the people on skid row; he recognized them as his neighbors. “Running is something I can share, and it became the catalyst for the program, but there are millions of things that people can do to impact the lives of others. It’s having found a way to help others that makes me Catholic. Christ expects us to do something in this world. I feel that if our religion is confined to the walls of our church, we’ve got problems.”
- For more details, see the award-winning documentary Skid Row Marathon (skidrowmarathon.com).
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