Mark Seabolt left his prison cell wearing someone else’s clothes.
He hated the hiking boots, and neither the pants nor the shirt fit very well. He was angry, empty, broke and alone.
, he was perfect.
In two years and 10 days of incarceration — for assault and battery and attempting to manufacture methamphetamines — Seabolt received one visitor and two pieces of mail. One was a picture of the church’s building with directions. His curiosity won out, and he tracked down the building a day after leaving prison.
Gingerly, he walked into the church’s office, “looking different, smelling different and talking different” than a typical churchgoer, he said. The staff’s reaction was shocking. They welcomed him — even hugged him — and invited him back for Bible study that night.
These people are crazy, he thought. Don’t they know what I’ve done?
“I was definitely not going,” Seabolt said of their invitation, but “somehow, at 7 p.m., I was walking through those doors.” He met more Christians at the Bible study. The next day, one of them took him shopping.
“I don’t know what it’s like to get a new Corvette,” Seabolt said. Swallowing hard, he added, “But I know what it’s like to get new clothes when you have none.”
Another church member hired Seabolt to paint a kitchen.
“He left money and a set of keys to the house,” Seabolt recalled. “He said, ‘we’ll see you on Monday,’ and left for the weekend.”
It seemed like a reckless degree of trust — even to Seabolt.
But at the Fort Gibson church, it’s typical.
“There is an atmosphere here of accepting people where they are,” said Dan Rouse, the church’s preaching minister.
As a result, Seabolt has hardly missed a Wednesday — or Sunday — since his first visit in 2002. He shares the love he found with other former convicts through the Faith Based Therapeutic Community Corporation
, an alternative sentencing program he oversees that stresses community service, job skills training and church attendance.
In 2012, the church experienced 42 baptisms through the program and other outreach efforts, Rouse said.
And, through its ministry at a women’s prison in nearby Taft, Okla., the church baptized an additional 162 inmates.
“I don’t think there has been a recent year that we haven’t had at least 120 baptisms out there,” Rouse said. “It’s the fact that our people are out there every week. It’s obvious to the prisoners that we care about them.”
NOT CONTENT TO SIT AND WAIT
For a little country congregation, the Fort Gibson Church of Christ is huge.
Its meeting place looms over a hillside in Oklahoma’s oldest town — the site of a military outpost established in 1824.
In 1855, J.J. Trott, a missionary from Tennessee, preached the Gospel here. A half-century later — yet still two years before Oklahoma became the 47th state — more than 300 people gathered for “The Big Meeting — Fort Gibson Indian Territory,” a revival that birthed the church.
Now big-rig trucks speed eastward from the city of Muskogee on Highway 62, past a newly opened Cherokee casino and a sign that points to the church building on South Lee Street.
It’s nearly as big as the casino, complete with circle drive, tall steeple and a lighted marquee sign that invites passersby to visit. On Sundays, 350 to 400 people gather here for worship.
The church benefits from its location, said Budo Perry, one of the congregation’s five elders. Though Fort Gibson boasts a mere 4,155 residents, according to census figures, the surrounding area has become a bedroom community for Muskogee, just across the Arkansas River, and Tulsa, about 45 minutes northwest on the Muskogee Turnpike.
The church could sit in its building and wait for worshipers to come. But for nearly three decades, the congregation’s leaders have challenged members to take the Good News to people who need it desperately — the more than 25,000 prison inmates in Oklahoma.
Bob Young, who ministered for the church in the mid-1990s, helped introduce the members to New Life Behavior Ministries
, a faith-based curriculum developed by H.M. Motsinger, a Church of Christ member and family therapist in Dallas. Using the Bible, the program tackles substance abuse and other demons that haunt inmates as it seeks to reconcile them with their families and their Creator. In recent years, Churches of Christ in Africa have launched affiliates of the Texas-based ministry.
In Fort Gibson, church members began teaching the curriculum at the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, a minimum-security women’s prison in Taft, 19 miles east of the church.
Twice per month, church members conduct Sunday worship at the prison. The church helped finance construction of a chapel for the inmates.
“Because of our participation, our members were involved in the design of the building,” Perry said, “and that meant the builders included a baptistery.”
‘WE’VE FOUND OUR MINISTRY’
Since the chapel’s dedication in 2010, church members have performed nearly 400 baptisms there.
About two dozen members teach the New Life Behavior curriculum to classes of 100 to 125 women on Friday mornings. Other members grade lessons and communicate with inmates — male and female — across the state through the church’s correspondence ministry.
Getting church members to talk about their involvement is difficult. Each points to someone else in the congregation who has worked with the program longer or goes to the services more frequently.
Betty Martin, 77, makes regular trips to the prison. She’s seen fellow members get a little skittish when she asks them to join her.
When they do go, “they realize how rewarding it is,” she said. “You can see in the girls’ faces their change of attitude. … They just thank us all the time.”
Working behind bars also has changed the congregation — even the way Rouse preaches, the minister said.
“It has opened doors and opened a lot of people’s hearts,” Rouse said. The church “sees itself as a hospital for sick people.” When members see the results of sin sickness on a regular basis, “the three-piece-suit righteousness is tossed out the window.”
By serving convicts, “we’ve found our niche, we’ve found our ministry,” Martin said. Instead of lamenting the state of the world, “we feel like we’re doing something.”
FRUSTRATION AND REHABILITATION
Inmates are “thirsty for someone to come and teach them the truth — consistently,” Perry said.
But helping new Christians maintain their faith after baptism is difficult. The state forbids contact between inmates and volunteers for six months after the inmate’s release. Neither may church members contact the inmates’ families.
“It’s my greatest frustration,” Rouse said. “I think it stinks, but we’ll lose our privileges if we follow up.”
The 180-day rule is designed to keep personal relationships from interfering with the professional duties of the corrections officers who work with inmates after their release, said Jerry Massie, public information officer for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections
. The rule applies to volunteers and prison employees who work with inmates during incarceration.
Though church members can’t do follow-up themselves, “we do encourage the inmates to look up local congregations when they get out,” Rouse said. “But we just don’t know what happens.”
The church also sends Bible class invitations to inmates — including the one that led Seabolt to their doorstep in 2004.
After experiencing the reckless trust and love of the church, Seabolt was baptized and founded the Faith Based Therapeutic Community Corporation. Men in the alternative sentencing program do community service projects, attend church services and mentor each other as they reintegrate into society.
These days, Seabolt’s cell phone rings almost constantly, as government agencies line up to get help from the program.
“Anything that needs to be done, they do it,” said Lyle Tolbert, longtime member of the church. After completing the program, several graduates have moved to the area and are active church members.
“The people are very respectful,” said Tolbert’s wife, Joyce. “They join us in our singing. It’s very satisfying.”
‘YOU’RE STUCK WITH ME’
On another Wednesday night, nearly nine years after Seabolt’s first visit, church members mingle in the foyer with men from the program — many with tattoos on their necks, some holding hands with their wives and carrying infants in car seats.
Rouse leads them through the first chapter of Revelation, a letter written by another prisoner — John, in exile on the island of Patmos because of his faith.
The letter, despite its seemingly bizarre visions of beasts and angels, is a message of encouragement for Christians, Rouse explains. As they experience trials and tribulation, John tells his fellow believers, “I understand. I’m there too.”
At the end of announcements, Seabolt shouts, “Wait! We have a graduation!”
Jordan Parks — who attempted two other sentencing programs before completing this one — walks to the front of the auditorium.
“Look at that smile!” one of the men shouts. Another hollers,“Speech!”
“It took me four years to get one of these,” says Parks, 22, holding his diploma. “It’s amazing how much — when you clear your eyes — how much you have to be thankful for.”
Parks, who was baptized recently, tells the congregation that he has moved to Fort Gibson and will continue to work with the program and attend church.
“You’re stuck with me,” he says with a grin.
Though the Bible studies help, it’s seeing Christians live out the faith they profess that transforms lives, Seabolt says.
“They loved us when we were unlovable, prayed for us when we couldn’t pray, trusted us when we couldn’t trust ourselves,” he says. “I think I read that in some book somewhere. Pretty crazy!”