INDEPENDENCE, Va. -- The young man has a sentence that will keep him behind bars until he is 67 years old. He had just turned 21 when he talked to the Rev. Terri Johnson Gregory about how church volunteers were more present in his prison today than they were in his childhood community.
“If someone had come to my neighborhood and brought the word of God,” he told Gregory, “then maybe I wouldn’t be where I am today. I might have chosen God over the gang.”
To Pastor Gregory and the church members now providing a chaplain and weekly worship services at River North Correctional Center, this might be a “second chance” to reach people previously overlooked by Christians.
“This is my second chance to bring the saving grace of Jesus to folks I was too scared to, the first time the opportunity was given,” Gregory said. “Maybe not to these guys, but I have allowed fear to keep me sometimes from being bold.”
Less than a year after the River North Ministry Council raised enough money to hire a chaplain for the new prison in their region, about 200 inmates are now attending weekly Christian worship services. Twenty-nine men have been baptized this year. The prison’s current population is about 850.
The chaplain at River North is R.B. Anderson, a member at Trinity United Methodist Church in Bland, Va. He is the only prison chaplain in the state (and perhaps beyond) to be paid through church and individual donations, said Gregory, pastor at First United Methodist Church of Independence, Va.
“When we heard the prison was going to open, we got on the stick and found out there were no funds available for a chaplain,” Gregory said.
While other states have reduced or considered cutting all funding for chaplain salaries, chaplains in Virginia are not state employees but are supported through Grace Inside, a nonprofit previously known as Virginia Chaplaincy Service. Thirty part-time chaplains currently serve 38 state prisons in Virginia.
Rather than have Grace Inside cut other salaries to accommodate the newest chaplain, local church leaders formed the ecumenical River North Ministry Council to raise money and organize prison volunteers, Gregory said. The 47 participating churches that send money and volunteers are located in Carroll County and Grayson County, Va., and Allegheny County, N.C.
Anderson started his part-time job in January, receiving an annual salary of $24,500. He drives about an hour from Bland to Independence and sleeps on a couch at First United Methodist Church so that he can work late and arrive early at the prison.
“I didn’t want to just sit on a pew in a church and be there every time the doors open,” Anderson said. “This is what a community can do when they get off their butts and make themselves available to God.”
ON THE INSIDE
Anderson, age 66, is a veteran of Special Forces, Vietnam and Desert Storm. He’s also a former R.O.T.C. teacher and educator of troubled juveniles, with a master’s degree in education administration. He felt drawn to prison ministry and attended the first meeting of the River North Ministry Council in June 2013.
“I have empathy for people who are struggling,” says Anderson, describing his own troubled youth. “I could have been one of those guys.”
Anderson was trained with about six other people to volunteer “on the inside,” but the new ministry council quickly saw he would make a good chaplain.
“His love for the men and his ability to communicate with them was a strong selling point,” said Robert “Buck” Coe, member at Dalton Hill Christian Church in Hillsville, Va. “When he spoke from his heart, we felt like he could share the love of Jesus.”
River North is a security level 4 prison, housing inmates with crimes so severe (murder, child abuse, or multiple offenses), 60 percent have life sentences, Anderson said. Volunteers admit that at first it’s frightening to go inside and sit with the men, but that’s what’s needed to build relationships.
“I was trembling. I was out of my comfort zone,” said Johnny Ballinger, a member at Beaver Creek Church of the Brethren in Floyd, Va. He was a participant in a Kairos Prison Ministry weekend at River North last month. “But you have to let God use you as a vessel to spread the Word. This might be the only time these guys hear it.”
When Friday worship services were started at the prison, the goal was to have 100 regular worshipers by Christmas 2014, Anderson said. “We jumped up to 30 people in two weeks.”
At the Nov. 7 service, there were 198 worshipers, combined, in the main service and in the smaller service for offenders in protective custody (child abusers and former police officers, at risk from harm from other inmates).
Anderson, who is now on the path to become a licensed local pastor in Holston Conference, says he treats the Friday service like a church, with a name (River North Fellowship Church), choir, and lay leaders. The men take pride in being asked to participate; some have asked for leadership roles.
“If you’re going to be a participant, you need to have a part,” Anderson said. “These men want to do something: ‘Hey, Coach, we want to do something for God. Put me in.’ Christ is doing something exciting with these people, working through offenders to offenders.”
LEAD THE WAY
With nearly one year of ministry behind them, church leaders are preparing for a new year of fundraising to accommodate a growing number of inmates.
Bruce Smith, a member of Christ Episcopal Church in Sparta, N.C., volunteers as assistant chaplain, handling part of the administrative paperwork to allow Anderson to spend more time visiting inmates. Churches have also been generous in providing equipment and supplies such as an overhead projector and sound system, Anderson said.
More help is needed, says Gregory. “That size of facility and that number of men really needs a full-time chaplain.” A full-time prison chaplain in Virginia is paid $48,000 annually.
Three months after the prison opened, the Christmas Eve 2013 worship (led by Holston pastor Rev. Kevin Richardson) was attended by 23. Church and prison leaders are expecting at least 10 times that number this coming Christmas Eve, followed by a baptism opportunity on Dec. 26, Gregory said.
United Methodists have “led the way” in supporting the ministry, including leadership from the Tazewell and Wytheville Districts. The Holston Conference Cabinet was aware of the prison’s upcoming opening and Gregory’s prison ministry background when they appointed her to First United Methodist Church in Independence, she said. Her father and uncle were long-time staff members at Bland Correctional Center, and Gregory and her sister “grew up” around the inmates.
“My father was a Matthew 25 guy,” she said. “Men who worked for him came back and talked about how Dad ministered to them.”
The Rev. David Tabor, Tazewell District superintendent, is a board member for Grace Inside. “My hope is that we don’t let go of the importance of any prison ministry,” he said. “I want to keep our funding, absolutely, but I also want to make sure we contribute through people, that we keep working in the system, and we keep people active.”
In Matthew 25, Jesus teaches that those who visit the prisoners will be blessed and have eternal life. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
“It is the basic part of what Jesus teaches,” Tabor said, “and we’ve just got to do that.”
Other stories on Holston prison ministries:
In the 'God Pod': Choir sings Easter cantata in Knoxville jail (The Call, 4/1/13)
Home-baked cookies: Woman creates ministry from prison experience (GBCS, 1/8/09)
Home cooking leads to love for inmates (Worldwide Faith News, 8/21/01)
To support River North prison ministry:
Make check payable to "Grace Inside," indicating "River North" on the memo line. Mail to: River North Ministry, c/o GraceInside, 2828 Emerywood Parkway, Richmond, VA 23294. You may also give online.