Envisioning a New Life: Former NJ Gov. Jim McGreevey Helps Ex-Inmates Start Fresh

By Lindsey Konkel

Sometimes it’s the darkest moments that help us understand who we are and what we want to become, says Jim McGreevey.

The former New Jersey governor knows a few things about the struggles of self-discovery. In 2004, he disclosed openly for the first time that he was gay amidst a high-profile controversy that ultimately ended his career in office.

In the years that followed, Jim sought spiritual guidance at a theological seminary. There he found a new calling as a minister to some of society’s most outcast individuals—women and men returning from incarceration.

“I help people envision a new life,” Jim said. He’s now the chairman of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, a Jersey City-based nonprofit that helps former inmates with job training, addiction treatment, and legal aid.

IDENTITY ISNT FIXED

Many of the men and women he counsels have painful and chaotic pasts, and Jim helps them move forward. At the core of his counsel is the hopeful message that identity isn’t fixed; that people can change and that crises and gut-wrenching loss can lay the way for great personal gains.

He asks his clients what their obituaries would read if they suddenly died tomorrow and how they would want them to read 30 years or so from now, at the end of a long life.

“We all need to embrace our own backstory. But the past doesn’t need to be the trajectory that guides the future,” he says.

According to Jim, the key to the process of personal growth is understanding how society’s views can shape the narratives we hold of ourselves.

FINDING HIS TRUE IDENTITY

Jim’s own narrative changed dramatically when he “came out” in 2004. Overnight, he went from being perceived as a politically-affluent, heterosexual male to becoming the recipient of stereotypes and slurs, he remembers.

Looking for answers, Jim entered the General Theological Seminary in New York in 2007. He had always grappled with his identity as a politician, where he never quite felt like he could be himself.

When Jim began ministering to inmates at a prison in Harlem as part of his seminary training, something clicked for him.

“I realized we were on the same journey,” says Jim of himself and the inmates. “We had different stories and backgrounds, but on a basic level, we shared the same fears, joys, longings, and spiritual goodness. We all felt the need to live into our better angels.”

Jim will speak at TEDxNavesink IDENTITY at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park on May 20. His talk, Real Life Heroes, will examine how his experiences working with the formerly incarcerated have helped to shape his own sense of self. Purchase your tickets here for the event.

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