Scottie Barnes is helping children avoid the separation she endured
By John W. Kennedy
Scottie Barnes lived a shattered childhood, embarrassed that her father spent most of her youth behind bars as well as dejected because her father never showed any kind of emotional attachment to her.
For three decades, Barnes prayed for the salvation of a man who — while being in and out of prisons five times — ignored and rejected her.
Despite the hurt, Barnes, now 60, spends her time making sure prisoners’ children receive something she never enjoyed: a full, fun day with their incarcerated fathers.
At age 4, Scottie began accompanying her mother on weekly prison visits to see her father. Every Sunday, they would make a three-hour drive from their home in Lenoir to Reidsville, N.C. Barnes at age 6 began to realize her father didn’t express any affection for her. She remembers him repeatedly staring at his watch, appearing anxious for the two-hour family visit to be over.
When she was 7, Scottie’s father, James Fred “Babe” Pennell, briefly was out of prison and the family moved to Knoxville, Tenn. Scottie started attending church and put her trust in Jesus. She heard sermons about Jesus being able to do anything, including healing her fractured family. Scottie figured if the minister talked to her daddy at home, everything would be OK.
When the preacher came in the front door, Pennell exited out the back. Before the pastor left, he told Scottie never to give up praying for her father’s salvation. When Pennell returned home, he warned her never to invite a minister to visit him again.
Scottie kept praying her father would love her and her mother. Within a couple of years Pennell returned to prison. Fearing stigma and shame, Scottie never told any of her classmates about her father’s whereabouts.
“Most children aren’t concerned about why their parent is in prison,” Barnes says. “They are concerned that their parent loves them.”
Finally, when Scottie was 13, she and her mother, Marguerite Rector, went to prison to bring Pennell home after he had served a 3½-year sentence. Scottie believed they finally could be a real family.
But the officer at the gate delivered shocking news: Pennell had just left with another woman he called his wife. That began Scottie’s long-held resentful feelings toward her father.
“A lot of prisoners’ children turn to crime because of bitterness,” Barnes says. “Reconciliation is needed to break the cycle.”
Scottie’s father continued to return to prison for longer sentences as his crimes graduated from bootlegging to tax evasion to drug kingpin.
As a young adult, Scottie went on with her life and tried to put her father out of her mind. But at age 20, after the birth of her first daughter, she found Pennell in an Atlanta penitentiary.
“Deep down I wanted him to see my baby — and love me because of her,” Barnes says. “I hoped this would cause us to begin a relationship.”
But Pennell expressed no interest in the child. Barnes’ feelings of rejection and pain started anew. She decided she wouldn’t try to be involved in Pennell’s life anymore.
“God must have chuckled that day,” Barnes says. “It’s not in God’s plan for us to write our parents out of our lives.”
Four years later, upon his release from prison, Pennell knocked on his daughter’s door in Taylorsville, N.C., to announce his plans to move next door.
“I prayed, ‘Lord, I don’t want him in my life; I don’t even like him,’” recalls Barnes, who continues to live in Taylorsville. “I still had an unforgiving spirit.”
Soon her father suffered a massive heart attack in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he spent his weekends. At the hospital, he listed his 37-year-old daughter as next of kin, which prompted a spark of hope in her.
“I felt overjoyed that he needed me,” Barnes says. She expected to see a man clinging to life, finally prepared to ask Jesus into his heart. Instead, although still in intensive care, Pennell was sitting up in bed, placing gambling bets over the phone.
“He wasn’t ready to get saved,” Barnes says. “Money was still his god.”
Nevertheless, Barnes experienced a renewed compassion for her father. Encephalitis and a stroke left him somewhat impaired, and Barnes knew he didn’t have much longer to live. She knelt in prayer and pleaded again for the Lord to do whatever it took, even if it meant God choosing to take her life in order to reach her dad. At that point, Barnes says, God replaced the root of bitterness with forgiveness. She continued to pray in earnest.
Two months later, Pennell asked his daughter to pray for him just after his arrest in Charlotte, N.C., for drug trafficking. Barnes knew God had begun to answer her prayer. But Pennell rejected his daughter’s plea to accept Jesus as Savior, saying he couldn’t believe a holy God would forgive him of all the wrongdoings he had committed. Yet the following day, Pennell did pray a salvation prayer and was baptized.
“A lot of prisoners don’t understand grace,” Barnes says.
At a highly publicized trial in South Carolina, the judge allowed Barnes to make an impassioned plea for mercy for her father. The judge reduced a 42-year sentence for the 61-year-old felon to 18 years. Pennell, crying uncontrollably, leaned over to his daughter and for the first time said, “I love you.”
Barnes began making an 800-mile round-trip every other weekend to visit her father in federal prison in Lexington, Ky.
“I didn’t dwell on the past,” Barnes says. “Now we had a commonality in Christ.”
Six months later, in 1987, her father died.
After her long ordeal, Barnes had no intention of becoming involved in prison ministry. She felt content operating a small retail store. But 12 years ago, a prison chaplain asked her to share her testimony with inmates. Prisoners responded to the message of how a little girl felt detached from, and then reconciled to, her father during his life behind bars. Invitations to speak at prisons and churches have poured in.
One such ministry trip to the Philippines changed her life. At an orphanage in Cebu, she prayed with a 12-year-old boy named Ezekiel who asked God to motivate his imprisoned father to love him. The following day, Barnes gave her testimony at a local prison. As she left, a white-haired man hollered at her.
“Today I asked Jesus into my heart,” the man explained. “I have a little boy, Ezekiel. I want you to tell him I love him.”
Barnes made a beeline back to the orphanage and delivered the message, cradling the boy in her arms.
Afterwards, Barnes sensed God calling her to help prisoners reconcile with their estranged children.
In 2004, under the auspices of Forgiven Ministry, Barnes began operating “One Day With God” camps designed to do just that.
Working with an array of volunteers, Barnes sees to it that inmates and their children can spend a fun Saturday together. The day’s activities include praise, worship, crafts, a Christian movie, food and games. Afterwards, the fathers present Bibles and other Christian gifts to their children.
“It’s a simple concept,” Barnes says. “I don’t know why someone hadn’t thought of it before.”
In addition, 19 churches under Barnes’ ministry operate “Ezekiel Room” at Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville. In the room an inmate’s child participates in a structured Christian program of songs, Bible stories, prayers, crafts and skits. Some of the fathers have never seen their children involved in any activity before.
With the support of Jack, her husband of 34 years, Barnes is ministering at prison camps in one of six states most weekends.
“If we want to stop the growth in the number of prisoners we have to reach children,” Barnes says.
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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