Several months ago, Randy Grounds, the warden at Salinas Valley State Prison in California, saw former professional football player Mike Barber on television talking about his ministry in prisons. Randy emailed Mike to invite him to minister at Salinas Valley. To his surprise, Mike responded quickly, offering to come at no cost whenever his schedule would allow.
Randy and I began putting an Operation Starting Line program together and mobilizing volunteers for Mike’s outreach. God seemed to be in this.
The morning of the outreach, our team assembled in the cafeteria. One of my volunteers had recruited Riley, the worship leader from Calvary Chapel Monterey, to help out with the event; and Pastor M.L. Carter from New Hope Baptist Church offered to bring part of his men’s choir to sing as well.
Riley arrived first that morning. I began to wonder how the men would receive him. Riley is a very young looking, small, white man who had never been in prison before, and all he had to work with were some lyric sheets and an acoustic guitar. Next Pastor Carter made the scene with his choir. As these older men arrived, I was a bit concerned if they would connect with the largely young population at this maximum-security facility. And when Mike Barber arrived, a self-proclaimed country boy from West Texas, cowboy boots and all, I thought, ‘This could be a very long day.’
When I heard that the chaplain would not be in attendance at the event and that sign-ups on Charlie Yard had started late, I thought the day was off to a bad start. Charlie Yard very rarely held events like this and movement on this yard is difficult. As a matter of fact, Warden Grounds had told us that Charlie was considered to be the most violent yard in the state of California.
We headed over to the chapel. I figured we would have plenty of time to get organized and set up there while the prisoners were released to the chapel. But when we pushed into the chapel with our heavily laden carts, we opened into a very small space in a room packed with prisoners, tightly controlled by three correctional officers. Nearly 80 men were waiting for us to arrive. With a warning that they would be just outside the door if needed, the officers left the room to us.
As soon as the officers left the room, the buzz started. It was quickly apparent that some of these men were not there to meet with us, but rather to take advantage of the relative freedom in the chapel to take care of their own business.
The volunteers set up the sound system fast, and I welcomed the men to our morning service and asked the warden to say a few words. With the system and the choir in place, Pastor Carter introduced his men and the service began. I prayed silently, “OK Lord, I did my best; this one is on YOU!”
With the downbeat of the first song, several things happened at once. I watched these older men transformed into a different sort of men. You would have thought that Ray Charles and his back-up doo-wop singers had just entered the room. These men rocked! Simultaneously, the atmosphere in the room began to soften as the old-school soul and gospel sounds filled this modest chapel and drew the men to the edge of their seats.
Now it was Riley’s turn. After a few introductions of volunteers, there was Riley standing bravely in front of a congregation unlike any he had ever led. Of course, his worship selection was much like we would hear in most of our suburban churches and Riley did it well, but still, I wondered. Two songs in, he began to lead out on Chris Tomlin’s song “How Great is our God.” And to my amazement, many of the men in the chapel that day sang. I felt the atmosphere thicken as the Spirit of the Living God began to inhabit the praises in the room.
Pastor Carter introduced Mike Barber, revealing the fact that he had actually played against Mike when he played for the Kansas City Chiefs back in the day, and the sense of anticipation in the chapel deepened.
Then God blew out my last preconceived notion of what it takes to accomplish His plans and purposes. I had the honor of watching Mike own that room and everyone in it. For nearly 45 minutes, Mike regaled the men with stories from his playing days, growing up poor in rural Texas, and his journey to faith. I watched as hardened prisoners struggled not to laugh at his stories and jokes and finally gave in to the joy of the moment. When he closed that meeting with a challenge for these men to take a stand for Jesus, 50-60 men leaped to their feet to receive Him as their Lord and Savior!
As Warden Grounds so aptly put it, “We got our Easter miracle early this year on Charlie yard!”
And God taught me a lesson that day as well. Never underestimate what He can do with humble hearts totally surrendered to His plans and purposes for the world.
Amen and Amen!
Dave Dove is a Prison Fellowship area director for California.