An Unusual Congregation Featured Article

An Unusual Congregation

Finding the church in the most unlikely place.

My church is not an ordinary church. If you’ve never been to a prison chapel to hear the inmates testify and sing about God’s amazing grace, you’re missing something. Many volunteers have told me they came to give but left having received. They came thinking they knew a lot about God’s grace but left knowing they had learned a lot more.

Sixteen choir members stand on the stage and sing as the men walk in and take their seats in the pews. Black, white, Native American, and Hispanic men get ready to honor God. It’s an unusual congregation.

 

Amazing grace

The building is officially called the Religion Department because a variety of religious groups meet there. That’s the reason the cross is not displayed. No one wants to offend anyone of a different faith.

Even so, every Sunday evening, the enthusiastic response of this group tells me the cross may offend some, but Christ convicts and saves. Because of this, murderers, sex offenders, thugs, thieves, and other convicted felons worship and praise God. Men whom society has labeled losers turn to the Savior and become winners.

The thrill of witnessing God rescue lives never wanes. Every time I see this transforming event, it amazes me. Isn’t it just like the Lord to choose “the foolish things of the world to confound the wise”?

My job as a chapel clerk gives me a unique perspective. I get to see the Lord invite men the world has rejected to commit their lives to Him. They learn to forgive those who have trespassed against them. They learn that the problem is not the color of their skin, but their sin. Their weaknesses become their strengths, and those who lose their lives for Christ, save them.

Prison life is mundane and depressing. The inmates have little to give their lives meaning and purpose. Anger and bitterness are prevalent; love and kindness are rare. The strong prey on the weak. They say Christianity is a crutch. The cross offends because their egos tell them they don’t need anyone, not even God.

Nevertheless, when Christ comes into their lives, these people are different. God changes them. The wolves turn into sheep. They rely on the Shepherd to guide them. They react differently to tragedy. Only those who realize the depth of their sin can appreciate the complete forgiveness God offers, and those who are forgiven much, love much.

 

Tough testimony

One Father’s Day, I gave my testimony. I had prepared all week for what I was going to say. I had only five minutes, and I wanted to say something meaningful. Tom and Paul, two other chapel clerks, helped me pray about it. One hundred ten men showed up for that Sunday evening service. I knew most of them. I knew I couldn’t fool them. I had to be real.

The cordless mic stuck out of my front pocket as I sat waiting. The choir sang a couple of songs, and then the choir leader introduced me. “Happy Father’s Day, everyone,” I greeted them. “I heard today that Bill Glass, who use to play for the Dallas Cowboys and now runs a prison ministry, said that after interviewing thousands of prisoners around the country, he believed most of them hated their fathers or had bad relationships with them. He claims this led many to rebel against authority.”

At this point, I stopped talking and stared down at the mic. I couldn’t remember what I had so diligently prepared to say. My mind went blank. I just stood there.

Finally I said, “My father was a tough guy.” I hadn’t planned to say that, and from that point on, I don’t remember exactly what I said. But I began to pour out my heart about my father and how I’d wanted to be like him. “I wanted to prove to him and to myself that I was just as tough as he was,” I explained. “But when he died in 1989, I realized what I’d really hungered for was his love. What would fill that hunger now? My search led me to God. For the first time in my life, I saw myself for the wretch I was, and I asked God to forgive me. I cried — something I thought tough guys never did. I gave my life to Jesus Christ, and nothing has been the same since. I quit trying to be something I’m not and started becoming the man God wanted me to be.”

Fred, my running partner, sat up front with tears in his eyes. A big smile on his face encouraged me to say more. “Living the Christian life is like running,” I told them. “It takes discipline and endurance for Fred and me to run every day. It takes discipline and endurance to live the Christian life. Keeping my eyes focused on Jesus is hard work. Giving up what endangers my relationship with God doesn’t come easy. I stumble when I stare at myself, but when I keep my eyes on Him, I change. When I look at Him, I become a better person — one God can use.”

Prison changed my priorities. Like a person on a deathbed, I suddenly saw things differently. My expectations changed. My sins have consequences I can’t control, but I can be a light in the darkness.

 

Redeemed

After each service is over, we line up outside the chapel in two columns. The officers in brown uniforms count the prisoners in blue. Darkness has fallen. The moon and the stars light the black sky. Razor-wire fences surround us, and guards in patrol cars check the perimeter fences. Guards in the control center watch the monitors for activated sensors. No one has ever escaped from this prison. Yet every Sunday, men are set free.

As we wait for the officers to finish the count, I watch for the chaplain and listen for his dedicated farewell. He closes the chapel doors and shouts, “Ain’t Jesus good?”

The visiting pastor and his people stare in awe as all one hundred ten men turn in response and shout, “All the time!”

It is our goodbye ritual to remind us that it’s not where we are that counts, but who we are in Christ. No one knows that better than a redeemed prisoner.

Roy A. Borges writes from the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, FL.

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