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An Evangel reporter goes inside a prison and discovers many inmates serving Jesus behind bars.

Souls set free

By Kirk Noonan

I walk through a metal detector and sign in at the main gate. An officer takes my driver’s license in exchange for a visitor’s pass that I quickly clip to my belt. My guide today, Brian O’Connell, a functional unit manager here at the Ozark Correctional Center in Fordland, Mo., leads me to a gate where an officer checks our credentials. He unlocks the gate and ushers us through. As we step inside the minimum-security prison, the officer pulls the gate shut. It locks automatically.

For February, the air is unseasonably warm. The cloudless blue sky sparkles overhead. We pass the visitors center and walk along a road that runs parallel to a 13-foot security fence, equipped with motion sensors and topped with razor wire. Nearby, small clusters of inmates are smoking, drinking coffee and talking.

O’Connell points to officers positioned throughout the yard. On the handball courts, nearly 100 prisoners are either playing or watching. Suddenly, an inmate runs past us on a makeshift track that weaves throughout the yard. Some of the inmates wear Walkman radios; others stand in line at a row of collect-call-only phones. Typical Sunday morning for the inmates, O’Connell says.

As we walk up a wooden ramp leading to the chapel, an inmate with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette dangling from the edge of his mouth says, "Good mornin’."

This prison is a drug- and alcohol-treatment facility; inmates are involved in one of four phases of treatment. Every inmate has a job. Some hold full-time jobs on the outside as part of the prison’s work-release program. Inmates live and sleep in bays or rooms with five to seven others.

"This prison encourages a sense of community among the inmates," says O’Connell. "The system here forces them to be concerned for others — they just can’t do their own time."

As we enter the chapel, loud praise music drifts into the springlike air from open windows and doors. Inside, two men test the microphones, while another makes adjustments on the soundboard. One man, an elder in the church, lines up beige plastic chairs. Elders, an inmate tells me, help run the service and are responsible for making sure everything is orderly and proper. Soon after we arrive, two inmates position themselves at the door and shake hands with or hug each person who comes to the service.

Next to the door is a magazine rack with Pentecostal Evangels, which appear to have been read several times over. In bookcases at the front of the room, religious reading material, videos and tapes line the shelves. Several religious groups use the building. A neatly stacked bundle of prayer rugs for Muslims is in one corner; a flyer announcing Native American ceremonies, which are held outside, and posters advertising various ministries, adorn the wood-paneled walls.

Inmates dressed in prison-issue gray trousers and brown jackets or gray sweat tops begin to fill the seats. As they do, the place feels like any vibrant church on the outside.

David Evans, the chaplain, says 70 to 80 inmates come to this Protestant service, one of five religious services on Sundays. But today nearly 100 chairs are brought in to accommodate the swelling crowd.

Elder Charles, an inmate, goes to a mike.

"Let’s welcome the Holy Spirit with a song," he yells.

Almost everyone springs to his feet and begins clapping. "I woke up feeling fine," they sing, accompanied only by the sound of clapping and a tambourine. "I woke up with Jesus on my mind. …"

Everyone bobs and sways in unison. They sing with fervency and passion. Some raise their hands as a sweet presence of God fills the room.

"Thank You, Jesus," yells one man.

"Glory to God," interjects another.

The singing continues for 20 minutes until two older men go to the mikes and sing a duet a cappella.

"I’ve seen black and white come together in such a pure love that I have never seen before," says Ronald after the service. "Racial barriers have been broken down because we hug one another and rejoice in the Lord."

"Racial harmony is not forced, but worshiping together helps defuse racial issues," says Chaplain Evans. "God is very much here, and He is working."

As Elder Charles’ voice booms, the room erupts with spontaneous worship. An inmate arrives late and stands in the aisle looking for a place to sit. An older inmate kindly welcomes him to an empty seat on his row.

"Be glorified, Father God," Charles prays. "We want to be vessels used of You today, Lord."

A few minutes later, a group of five men surround two mikes. They sing a contemporary Christian song that brings several inmates to their feet again. After more than an hour of worship, the guest speaker, a pastor from St. Louis, preaches.

"Every one of you has an issue," he says, panning the room. "But I know God can take that issue and turn it into a miracle."

As he preaches, the sound of flipping pages sweeps across the room when he refers to Scripture. Almost everyone has a Bible; those who don’t look on to their neighbor’s Bible. The sermon is peppered with exhortations from the congregation like, "Amen, brother," "Praise to the Father" and "Preach it, pastor."

As the service nears an end, an altar call is given for those who want to accept Christ as Savior. No one responds. But when an invitation for prayer is given, almost everyone in attendance comes forward. They huddle in the altar area and begin crying out to the Lord.

After being dismissed, most go to the cafeteria for lunch, but a few stay to visit with each other or stack chairs. Evans estimates that nearly a third of the 700-plus inmates at the prison attend some religious service during the week.

"You’ve got to have the Word to grow," says Jonathan, an inmate who helps lead worship. "Coming here [to service] helps us fight this disease of drugs and alcohol, and it builds unity and character. A lot of people would not have met Christ if they were not in prison. For many this is the cross they needed to bear in order to find Jesus Christ."

Charley has been in prison since he was 18 and agrees with Jonathan. Having struggled with a severe drug problem, Charley says he would not be serving Christ if he were not in prison.

"I was too far gone on drugs," he says. "But I thank God I am here. It doesn’t matter that I am in prison because this is the first time I have really been free. My only desire now is to walk with Christ."

An inmate, Jason, tells me he was seeking a relationship with God before he came to prison five years ago, but was not sure how to go about it. When a local church came to the prison where he was, God touched his life and he asked Christ to be his Savior.

"I felt a love I had never felt before," he says of that night. "I knew there was something different about those people, and I liked it. Getting saved was an amazing, cleansing experience."

For inmates like Ronald, the chapel services and being a Christian behind bars have provided a valuable training ground for ministry.

"Coming to church gives me a chance to mature, grow and labor for the Lord," he says. "I get to go forth and pray, be faithful in attending church and interceding for others. It gives me a glimpse of what God has for me after I leave here. If you can stand here, you can stand anywhere."

Just before I leave the chapel, I ask one of the inmates what readers of the Evangel can do to support Christian services and prisoners. Without hesitating he says, "Just tell them to pray for us. We really need their prayers."

Kirk Noonan is a staff writer for the Pentecostal Evangel.

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