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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

AG Chaplain Instrumental in Securing New Chapel for Women Prisoners

By John W. Kennedy
May 15, 2011

For years, endorsed Assemblies of God Chaplain Pete Untalon grieved that he had to turn away inmates wanting to worship in the cramped chapel at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, Calif.

No more.

This month the finishing touches are being applied to an all-faith outdoor amphitheater and surrounding meditation gardens on the grounds of the penitentiary, which now houses 3,300 inmates.

In 1997, Untalon became a chaplain at the largest women’s prison in the world. Since 2008 he has been community partnership manager at Valley State Prison, supervising the four state chaplains at the institution.

The chaplain, who grew up in a nonreligious, dysfunctional household, understands the pain prisoners endure. He began living on his own at 15 after his parents divorced. As a juvenile, he struggled with illegal drugs, had skirmishes with the law and was suspended from school twice before dropping out altogether.

At 18, Untalon joined the U.S. Army and, in 1967, went to fight in the Vietnam War as a guerrilla warfare infantryman. In his first search-and-destroy jungle firefight, Untalon witnessed the bloody death of a buddy. Bitterness took root in his heart, and it festered as more soldier friends died. He wanted revenge against the enemy Vietcong. His anger also grew against the U.S. government that supplied weapons so he could engage in what he saw as little more than gang warfare. As he returned from the war, anger and bitterness grew after antiwar hippie protesters in San Francisco spat on him and called him “baby killer.”

Yet the 22-year-old war veteran connected back home with a companion from youth who had been delivered from a heroin addiction and suicidal thoughts as a result of accepting Jesus Christ as his Savior. Untalon made the same decision.

“The Lord began to heal me of all the scars I had,” Untalon says. “Eventually God helped me to forgive and move on from the post-traumatic stress.”

Despite the trauma of the war, Untalon received five service Bronze Stars, one service Silver Star and a Presidential Unit Citation. He went on to obtain a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling and wrote his dissertation on Vietnam veterans overcoming bitterness. Several inmates at Valley State Prison have had children who died in robberies, drug deals or suicides.

“I can identify with women in terms of them hurting,” Untalon says. “A lot of female inmates have been abused physically, sexually and mentally. Unless they learn to forgive their perpetrators, there can’t be any healing.”

While Untalon is grateful for anger-management programs and groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous that are available to inmates, he says complete healing requires a spiritual component.

“The only way I could forgive others was to receive the forgiveness of the Lord,” he says. “Inmates are transformed by the power of God touching their hearts.”

Five years ago, when Untalon spoke at the women’s prison in Gatesville, Texas, he marveled at the facility’s beautiful 400-seat chapel, which had been built with private funds donated by churches and individuals. Only 125 women could fit into the chapel at Chowchilla. Sometimes women who waited in line for hours would be turned away because of limited space.

“Every weekend we had multiple services, but I still had to close the doors and tell the women we had no more room,” Untalon says.

Untalon became resolute about duplicating the blessing of the Gatesville chapel at Chowchilla, even though California never had authorized a prison chapel using private funds. Untalon connected with retired investor and committed Christian Jim Vogelzang, who spearheaded the formation of a nonprofit called Chapel of Grace.

Funds came from a variety of churches, including Assemblies of God congregations Cornerstone Church and People’s Church in Fresno, 40 miles north of the prison. Former inmates and current prisoners — who make an average of 25 cents an hour — also contributed. One donor, Elsa Roybal, credits chapel services with turning her life around. She served a five-year sentence at Valley State Prison ending in 2003.

“When you’re there, you’re broken, but then people like Chaplain Pete know that you are salvageable,” says Roybal, who now manages a deli in Santa Cruz. “I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t have a church with different [Bible] studies to run to there.”

With the fundraising project in midstream, the correctional facility began allowing chaplains to open Valley State Prison’s 500-seat gymnasium for services. So plans shifted to create an outdoor amphitheater, surrounded by trees and flowers. Construction began in February, after $500,000 in private donations had been secured.  

The new amphitheater seats 400, and the adjoining lawn incorporating meditation gardens accommodates an additional 1,000 women. Untalon says the enlarged religious venue will enable more guest speakers to share the Word of God and allow more prisoners to hear the gospel.

“The amphitheater will be the avenue to change lives,” Untalon says. Untalon’s wife of 43 years, Bea, as well as his daughter, Melissa, are both gospel singers and have ministered at the prison with him over the years.

Five different faith groups will have private and separate garden areas to pray, meditate and worship at the Chapel of Grace.

“It will offer the women a safe, quiet ‘sacred space’ for them to find forgiveness for their past, make peace with their present situation, and discover hope for their future,” Vogelzang says.

“The Chapel of Grace will be an inviting place for all women who seek to find refuge and spiritual sustenance,” says Valley State Prison Warden Walter Miller.

Meanwhile, the existing indoor chapel will continue to be used for daytime and evening Bible studies and during inclement weather.

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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