HARVEST, Ala. — Robbery. Murder. Child molestation.
The six inmates seated in state prison chaplain Charles Baggett’s office on a recent Wednesday earned their lengthy sentences.
David, Jackie, Michael, Rodney, Tim M. and Timothy W. were condemned to Limestone Correctional Facility, a medium-security Alabama prison, to pay debts to society.
But here, in a world of razor-wire fences, tattooed arms and six-digit inmate numbers, these violent criminals came to believe that God sent his only son to pay a debt for them.
They found faith — and hope — in Jesus Christ. Now, these brothers in Christ teach, preach, lead singing and work hard to share what they discovered with other inmates.
“All of y’all are going to be wearing white one day, too. We just got a jump-start,” joked Rodney, referring to the white prison garb stamped with “Alabama Dept. of Corrections” in bold black letters that identifies Limestone’s 2,400 inmates.
With 2.4 million people behind bars in the United States, jail and prison ministry affords tremendous opportunities for sharing the Gospel, said attendees at the recent 37th annual National Jail and Prison Ministry Workshop.
“White fields of harvest are found in each jail and prison,” said Tom Dugan, prison minister of the Airport Road Church of Christ in Crestview, Fla., which last year baptized 42 inmates and sent 11,000 Bible correspondence courses to prisoners.
The workshop, hosted by the Madison Church of Christ, west of Huntsville, and the NewLife Behavior Network of Alabama, drew 325 participants from 16 states.
“You hear so much about the church, the idea that we’re losing members,” said Baggett, state chaplain at Limestone for 13 years. “The fastest-growing Churches of Christ in the world are inside jails and prisons. We’re growing by leaps and bounds.”
The Rainbow Church of Christ in Gadsden, Ala., averages more than 100 baptisms a year at the Etowah County Jail and operates a transitional home for released female inmates.
Rainbow church member Ray Cox served as charter state director of the NewLife Behavior Network of Alabama, which is associated with Churches of Christ and promotes Bible study, substance abuse recovery, halfway houses and other support programs.
The number of baptisms produced by jail and prison ministries would “stagger the imaginations” of many Christians, Cox said. “But we could sure do a lot more,” added Cox, who describes prison ministry as both extremely rewarding as many accept the Gospel and frequently devastating as many revert to their former ways.
Across the nation, 160-plus ministries associated with Churches of Christ baptized nearly 8,000 inmates in 2009, according to a survey by NewLife Behavior Ministries in Corpus Christi, Texas. Longtime prison minister Buck Griffith serves as president of that national ministry, which developed the curriculum used by the Alabama network.
Griffith told workshop participants that many church members oppose prison ministry, while others simply squirm when they hear reports of inmate baptisms.
Still others wouldn’t mind the church baptizing 100 percent of inmates, “as long as you or I hold them down until they quit bubbling,” Griffith said.
“My phrase is, ‘We’ve got to get over it,’” he said of worrying about such opposition. “That’s just the way it is.”
Each week, more than a dozen members of the Parkway Church of Christ in Fulton, Ky., conduct two men’s Bible classes, a women’s Bible class and a Sunday worship service for women at the Fulton County Detention Center.
The ministry, started less than four years ago, has resulted in more than 70 baptisms, minister Cecil May III said.
“Our experience tells us that every church that has access to the local jail system should have some outreach to that facility,” May said.
Nia Johnson, 25, a member of the University Church of Christ in Montgomery, Ala., teaches in the NewLife ministry at Tutwiler Prison for Women, a maximum-security facility.
Topics include anger management, parenting skills, addiction recovery and positive attitudes and behaviors.
“The first time I went in, I was scared out of my mind,” said Johnson, a marketing and communications specialist for Lads to Leaders/Leaderettes.
But once she got to know the inmates, she said, they impressed her as ordinary people who made horrible mistakes and desperately need the saving power of Jesus.
“The hope I saw in their eyes, their enthusiasm, their thirst for knowledge really struck me,” Johnson said. “I really just love being able to get to know some of the ladies … to just share with them.”
BIBLES ‘OPEN ALL DAY LONG’
At Limestone, a wooden sign with the phrase “In Remembrance of Me” adorns a simple, rectangular baptistery.
The tank, which takes about 10 minutes to fill, receives frequent use at Alabama’s largest prison.
“Over the past many years, we have baptized literally thousands of people in that baptistery,” said Baggett, a member of the Beltline Church of Christ in Decatur, west of Huntsville. “We have another baptistery at the other end of camp.”
Volunteer chaplain Sam Drake, a member of the Madison church, works with inmates assigned to Limestone’s faith-based honor dorm, where selected inmates focus on spiritual development.
Industrial-strength fans make a loud humming noise in the un-air-conditioned dorm. Words such as “Honor,” “Respect” and “Integrity” are painted prominently on concrete-block columns amid hundreds of inmate bunk beds.
“There’s more Bible studying going on here (at the prison) than there might be in the whole city of Huntsville,” Drake said. “The Bibles are just open all day long.”
Under state law, Limestone must provide equal opportunities for all faiths, from Christian denominations to Islam to Wicca.
As state chaplain, Baggett said he works to accommodate all faith groups and treats each with the same courtesy and kindness he would appreciate himself.
However, Churches of Christ maintain the strongest ministry presence at the prison, Baggett and the inmates said. A number of congregations provide volunteer chaplains and funding for expenses such as printing Bible lessons.
Gold, well-worn “Songs of the Church” hymnals — the ones with 728b, the most famous song number in modern Church of Christ history — rest in the backs of the chapel’s wooden pews.
“One of the rules of this office is that if somebody says they want to be baptized, they’d better hold their breath,” inmate David said, referring to how quickly baptism requests are fulfilled.
HE’S FINE IF HE DIES IN PRISON
On a recent afternoon, a man named Anthony became the 141st Limestone inmate immersed into Christ in 2010.
Anthony switched his regular prison attire for a special white jumpsuit with “Baptism Clothes” in black letters on the front and stepped into the water.
“Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?” asked James E. Williams, prison minister of the Northwest Church of Christ in Huntsville, standing beside the small tub.
“Lean forward a little bit. You’re a little long,” Williams said after Anthony confessed his faith. “Grab your nose because I’m going to lean you back, OK?”
After baptizing Anthony, Williams proclaimed, “Praise God! You have done what the Lord has commanded you to do, and you are a member of the body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Congratulations, brother!”
Inmate Tim M., who has served 15 years at Limestone and will leave prison in October, introduced Anthony to Christ.
Baggett describes Tim M. as a “dynamic soul winner” who has played a role in at least 100 inmate conversions just this year.
“Tim often will leave here (the chapel) in the morning, and as he goes out the door, he’ll say, ‘I’m going fishing,’” Baggett said. “And he’ll often come back with two or three people wanting to be baptized. He does a good job teaching.”
Tim M. said he just shares the Scriptures.
“It don’t matter who the person is,” he said. “I just walk up to ’em. And I just talk to ’em.”
Inmate Timothy W., who once served time on death row, said he ignored Tim M.’s conversion attempts when he arrived at Limestone in 1997.
In fact, the “preaching, preaching, preaching” annoyed him, he said, and interrupted the soap operas he was trying to watch. But eventually, he was won over.
“I called my folks, and I said, ‘I’m through,’” he said. “They said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I said, ‘Man, I’m giving it up to God.’”
Inmate Michael said he got in serious trouble in 1994 and, at age 23, found himself in prison. In 1995, he started studying the Bible, leading to his baptism.
“I really was just trying to find myself … see where I went wrong, try to correct some of the mistakes I had made in the past,” he said.
At Limestone since 1986, inmate Jackie must serve a dozen or more years before he has any chance at freedom.
Yet, since his baptism in 2001, he said he no longer worries about dying in prison.
“It doesn’t matter to me which environment I’m in when I die,” he said. “What matters is where I’m at spiritually. And as far as hope, I’ve got hope now.”