HILLSVILLE, Va. (May 30, 2017) -- When the letters started coming from the jail, the Rev. Ronnie Collins was amazed by the artwork decorating the envelopes and pages. The first was a sketch of Jesus.
As more and more mail arrived from the inmates, the drawings became elaborate, including scripture or professions of faith.
“We were blown away by the talent that we saw,” says Collins, who had visited inmates at New River Valley Regional Jail with his associate pastor, David Payne. “These men sought us out to share their talent and to grow in their walk with Christ.”
The connection with the jail led to development of several new ministries at Out of the Box United Methodist Church, which was already a hub of spin-off ministries.
The jail ministry is a spin-off of a two-year-old recovery ministry at Out of the Box, now serving 100 people every Wednesday night
“We had people in our ministry who relapsed and went to jail, so we went to visit them,” said Collins. “It started with one person, and before I knew what was happening, the inmates started talking to their cellmates about the crazy pastors from Out of the Box who cared about them. “
Collins and Payne went from visiting two or three inmates to visiting about 30 people who wanted to pray and talk about their faith.
When jail regulations and the 45-minute drive to the facility limited the pastors’ visiting time, the inmates started their own Bible study and sent letters to the church.
“God has really taken away a lot of my pain through art,” one letter said. “I still feel very alone most of the time … It’s hard but at least I have art.”
“The only thing I ask is if someone from the church could correspond with me as I have no letters,” another offender wrote.
“I’m going to draw my life so people can see my recovery,” another letter said.
Most of the 30 to 40 inmates who write to Out of the Box have addictions, and 90 percent seem to have artistic abilities, Collins said. They can only have pen and pencil and small pieces of paper in the jail, so they adapt. They tape the small pages together to make bigger pieces. They add color to the art by swiping deodorant on magazine pages.
“They teach each other,” Collins said. “I get chills just talking about it. They’ll take a picture and work on drawing a piece of art together. That’s what the church should be like.”
Out of the Box started as a storefront youth ministry of First United Methodist Church (Hillsville) in 2008. The youth ministry grew so quickly, it emerged into a separate congregation, with 300 in current average weekly worship attendance.
About a year ago, the church bought the building that borders it on North Main Street. The congregation is praying for a vision of the best ways to use the building (as well as funding), Collins said. In the meantime, the building offers new food and clothing ministries – as well as an art studio and gallery where the inmates’ work is exhibited.
Donna Godwin created the studio and framed many of the inmates’ illustrations, including a crucifix necklace made of strings from jail blankets.
“As an artist, God has called me to share art in a variety of ways,” she said. “This jail ministry is one way to share some of their stories in the community, when they can’t.”
The drawings are mostly religious, but one inmate illustrated himself riding a motorcycle after he is released. Some of the jail art is shared in “Happy Holidays” or “Wishing You Peace and Love” greetings to the congregation. On the back of one such greeting, an artist illustrated a barcode with the words, “It’s a Jailmark, not a Hallmark.”
When wildfires devastated parts of Sevier County, Tenn., in late November 2016, the artists sent an illustration with praying hands and signed their names under a written prayer.
“It touches my heart every time we get a piece in the mail,” said Godwin. “Sometimes I get on my hands and knees and cry. They’re in prison and they’re able to produce.”
Out of the Box is on the move to support inmates at New River Valley Regional Jail both while they are incarcerated and after they are released. The pastors have received permission and training to begin a recovery ministry inside the jail with both men and women.
“We are waiting on approval from the jail to get started,” Payne said.
About 10 church members have committed to writing to the inmates; the church is hoping for additional faithful correspondents. The congregation also throws parties and collects gift items (“to help them get settled in the community”) for those who are newly released, Collins said.
“We want them to know God loves them because they see us loving them.” Collins often accompanies the men to court, vouching that his team will support them after their release and during their recovery. “We care about them, and we want to be there for them if they want to be accountable.”
The downtown Hillsville church hopes to partner with other congregations, pastors and agencies in Carroll County who will visit inmates and receive them when they are free. Several other partnership opportunities also exist.
“As the ministry continues to grow and expand, so does the need for more resources, hands, feet, and hearts to serve,” Payne said.
Out of the Box has an intimate relationship with people who suffer from addiction. The jail ministry goes hand-in-hand with that, Collins says.
“Jail is no place for addicts,” he says, although many end up there. (That’s why Collins is an advocate for Drug Court involving recovery treatment and supervision for offenders, instead of traditional court processing.)
“There’s never been a person who woke up one morning and said, ‘I want to become an addict today,’” Collins said. “Drugs rob them of everything they’ve got. But our God is greater, our prayers are powerful, and our prayers can save people and defeat Satan.”
Melanie Alderman: Shame destroys, love gives life (The Call, 5/4/17)
Out of the Box becomes becomes new church (Holston video, Sept. 2014)
New 'Out of the Box' youth ministry in Hillsville (The Carroll News, 9/3/08)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.