The church on death row
LINCOLN, Neb. — Shackled at the waist, wrists and ankles, Carey…
LINCOLN, Neb. — Bill Hance was a reluctant convert to prison ministry.
The soft-spoken 80-year-old sits at a table outside his small office in an annex of the Lincoln Church of Christ. He leafs through a folder of notes as he gives a rundown of his weekly schedule — Bible studies every other Tuesday at LCC (Lincoln Correctional Center) for protected inmates, and what the state calls a Protestant worship service on the alternate Tuesdays.
Bible studies happen at the first of the month for the general population. It’s called prison fellowship. Baptisms are on Thursdays if requested in advance. Fridays are mostly for mailing Bibles to inmates.
Hance, who has served in prison ministry for three decades, never saw himself as the type of guy who would spread the Gospel behind bars — much less on Nebraska’s death row to “the vilest offenders who truly obey” to borrow words from an old hymn.
It all started with a belt.
Related: The church on death row
A native of Texas, Hance studied agriculture at Abilene Christian College (now Abilene Christian University) before moving to Washington to work for the Soil Conservation Service in the nation’s capital.
He worshiped with the Springfield Church of Christ in Virginia and served as the church’s curriculum director. He wrote Bible lessons at a desk next to the church’s donation closet.
“As people would get out of jail, people in the jail ministry would bring them by to get clothes,” Hance says, “but one thing people don’t tend to give away is belts.”
One day, Hance took off his own belt and gave it to a former inmate. That act made a huge impression, the jail ministry workers told Hance, so “I began to buy multiple belts — too big for me — and would punch an extra hole in them,” he says, chuckling. “I was a little thinner then.
“When people would come in and need a belt, why, I would take off my belt and give it to ‘em. I didn’t know if I was being hypocritical or not, but it seemed to make the right kind of impression.”
Hance and his family took a young parolee into their home — an experience that quickly turned negative. The young man got high from model glue in their home and took advantage of their hospitality.
“We learned real quick that, as we make ourselves vulnerable, we become vulnerable,” he says.
In 1985, the family moved to Nebraska and began worshiping with the Lincoln Church of Christ. About 15 members served in prison ministry and in 1987 invited Hance to accompany them to worship at one of the men’s dormitories. Despite his previous negative experience, he accepted the invitation.
“The big prayer is that when they get out that they’ll stay with the Lord, they’ll stay faithful.”
Soon Hance was in charge of outreach efforts at a different facility. He developed a curriculum for teaching inmates and took early retirement to work full time in prison ministry. He has served at facilities across the state — including the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, which houses death row.
He has served as part of a prison chaplain fellowship, working with ministries from other Nebraska churches. In the past three decades he’s helped establish halfway house ministries and coordinated benevolence work for prisoners.
Some of the efforts have floundered, he says. Others have succeeded. Through it all, he’s kept members of the Lincoln Church of Christ active in prison ministry. From 270 to 290 inmates per year are baptized through the church’s efforts, Hance says, though he’s quick to give the credit to God.
Members of the Lincoln Church of Christ say that the faith they’ve seen behind bars has strengthened their own faith.
And the barrage of Bible questions they receive from inmates keeps them grounded in God’s Word.
“The thing that keeps me going is the letters they write,” says Winona Maxon, who sends 40 to 50 cards to inmates per month and helps coordinate the church’s Bible correspondence ministry. “They just are so thankful, so appreciative. We know we’re making a difference in their lives. The big prayer is that when they get out that they’ll stay with the Lord, they’ll stay faithful.”
The needs of the inmates — for mentoring and discipleship, during and after their sentences — is immense, Hance says.
“I wasn’t able to do it justice part time,” he says, “and I realized after I became full time that I still wasn’t. All I can do is all I can do.”
Hance is training Joe Stallard, a crane operator who plans to retire and serve as Hance’s successor.
Stallard says he’s been surprised and inspired by what he’s seen in the prisons he’s visited — especially Nebraska State Penitentiary, where Nebraska carries out its executions.
Built in 1869, the prison has a chapel at its heart. Visitors must go through multiple security measures to reach it.
“To get there, you have to want to be going there,” Stallard says. “When you leave the turnkey and are walking across the courtyard with a guard, these people just come walking out. They start singing praises to God and join us. They stop their singing every once in a while to greet each other.
“They sing hymns all the way to the chapel. You don’t see that out in the real world.”
“These are men that have a stronger purpose than just serving a prison sentence. They have a purpose for their life. They’re going somewhere.”
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