My first visit to a jail came when I was 20 — and I really had no business being there.
After all, what could a law-abiding, baseball-card-collecting, crossword-puzzle-creating college nerd (not much bigger than an Ewok from “Star Wars”) have in common with people who spent their days and nights behind bars? What would we talk about? “Hey, did you get 38 down in yesterday’s LA Times
? And how about the bet the guy made in ‘Final Jeopardy’ last night?”
But when I walked into CCA Metro Detention Facility in Nashville, Tenn., that Sunday night back in 1994, I wasn’t following my intellect or even my conscience. I was following my heart, which at the time was securely in the possession of the 21-year-old blonde sitting next to me. She had been involved in jail and prison ministry for several years and wanted me to try it once.
When the guard opened the outside door, it was time to go back and see the guys. The girl wouldn’t be with me, as it turns out. This facility had separate services for men and women at the same time, so she went back into the women’s pods, and I went with Harold, Harold, and Harold — their real names, by the way — to the chapel.
The Harolds were going about the business of setting up a jail service, distributing song books, showing the communion trays to the guards, sorting through prayer request cards and correspondence courses, waiting for the guys to come in. I, meanwhile, was trying to disappear.
One of the first inmates through the door was, physically speaking, everything I wasn’t. Standing 6-foot-6 and probably weighing in the neighborhood of 400 pounds, he was the picture of everything I had imagined a prison inmate to be — scary big.
I put on my “try to look friendly even though deep down I think I’m probably going to die” face and shook his hand. Excitedly, he shook my hand and took a seat on the front row. He seemed genuinely thrilled to be there, and especially happy that I was there, too.
“This is your first jail service, isn’t it?” he asked. I nodded.
“Yeah,” I squeaked.
“Well, don’t worry about it,” he told me. “If anybody wants to get to you, they have to get through me.”
I had serious doubts that my Toyota Corolla would be able to “get through” this guy, so my body’s flight response dimmed.
I took in the rest of the service. I helped pass the Lord’s Supper trays. There were six responses to the sermon, including one request for baptism. (I found out later that these are fairly typical response numbers for a room with 35 men.) As the Harolds packed up supplies and the last of the inmates left the chapel, my new, really large friend said, “I hope we see you again.”
“I hope so, too,” I replied.
At the time, I had no idea why I said that, but reflecting on the conversation later, I realized that the sense of comfort and safety I felt as I was leaving CCA Nashville didn’t really have much to do with merely surviving the night. Facing a ministry career that would probably be defined by what I could or could not do, in prison work I had found a way to share the grace of God with people who knew they needed it.
That night, I felt I belonged in jail.
In the 16 years since, I have ªbounced in and out of pulpits all over the country. I have gone to grad school, spent a year working with the homeless, displayed my talents (or lack thereof) before audiences large and small.
I have had the privilege of being midwife to roughly 300 new births into Christ, most of them in correctional facilities. I even got to spend a year helping one of the Harolds — Harold Cox, along with his wife, Helen, and Federal Prison Outreach Ministry director Ron Goodman — run their Madison, Tenn., prison ministry office.
Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve tried to be involved in ministry to the incarcerated. I don’t go back over and over again because the work is easy. I’ve learned that there are times when jail work is genuinely difficult. Nor have I ever felt particularly duty-bound. There are souls to be saved everywhere you go, not just behind bars.
I keep going into jails and prisons because people need to experience God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness. They need love to be based not on what is in their past or what they might have to offer in the future, but on our shared humanity and potential eternity of fellowship in heaven.
Most of all, they need to know that no matter their surroundings, real security — real safety — is available in Jesus. And so do I. BEN WILES is pulpit minister for the Pleasant Grove Church of Christ in Guthrie, Ky., and a volunteer at the county jail. He and the young woman mentioned in this piece, Laura, recently celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary.