A lot of the inmates don’t know the lyrics to contemporary Christian songs, and some of them can’t read the words in a hymn book. “But everyone knows ‘Amazing Grace,’” says college junior Stephanie Gibbs. “And that’s when it sounds like we’re going to knock the walls down!”
One Monday a month, Stephanie and her team of Prison Fellowship volunteers—all students at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina—head across the state line into Spartanburg, South Carolina, to visit Livesay Correctional Institution, a minimum-security facility for men. The students cross the border because North Carolina prisons won’t allow volunteers under the age of 21. Some of the Gardner-Webb students are only 18.
That’s how old Stephanie was when she first went into Livesay (then called Northside) as a freshman to participate in a worship service for interested prisoners. Having noshed on the criminal stereotypes of “Law and Order,” “CSI,” and the like, some of the students in the group contended with knotted stomachs. But Stephanie was already a seasoned veteran of real-life prison.
“Since I was young, my dad has almost always been in jail,” she explains. Raised by her dad’s mom, Stephanie joined her grandmother on visits to whichever facility he happened to be in. “So it’s comfortable for me.”
Defying the Stereotypes
That comfort drew Stephanie to the Prison Fellowship exhibit at a campus ministries fair during her first semester at the private Christian university. Seeking to reach “the next generation of volunteers,” Prison Fellowship had formed partnerships with Gardner-Webb and other colleges, providing ministry training and oversight through its field staff.
“I thought it would be a really good opportunity to use what I’ve experienced and to reach out to the community,” says Stephanie. Many people “automatically think of the stereotypes” of prisoners, she adds. “These guys are ones that society shuns and are afraid of, and it shouldn’t be that way because it’s not like that when you go in there.” At least with most of the prisoners, she clarifies.
In fact, Stephanie says, the 25 to 30 inmates who typically come for the monthly worship service “encourage us as much as we encourage them.”Some fit the TV and movie stereotypes, she says. But her experience has shown that the majority “are more down to earth. They care for their families like we care for our families. They have made mistakes, but who hasn’t? I don’t feel like they’re in a different category.”
“Young people do things to folks,” says James Murray, Prison Fellowship field director in South Carolina, who trained the students for prison ministry and eagerly welcomed them as part of the South Carolina team. “They bring energy, vibrancy, creativity.” On the other hand, he adds, young people can sometimes be “kind of casual in their approach to Bible study and devotion. And after getting involved in prison ministry they become more diligent because they have seen these men in prison who have good scriptural knowledge. And that inspires them to study more.”
“A lot of times you think prisoner and you don’t think Christian,” adds Stephanie, “and a lot of these guys know their stuff better than we do. They encourage us spiritually and lift us up through prayer.”
A favorite for both prisoners and students is the time devoted to “breakout sessions,” where they divide into small groups to discuss the lesson topic and how it applies to their own lives. “That’s the best time to get to know each other and to start building trust,” says Stephanie. That’s when the real sharing takes place.
Stephanie has shared with the men her own experience as an inmate’s child, “because a lot of these guys have kids.” She’s talked about her roller-coaster relationship with her dad through the years, the “bittersweet” challenge of loving someone but having to watch him make poor choices. She believes her experience helps the fathers among the group gain a better understanding of what their own children might be going through. And in turn, the inmates’ stories help to shed more light on her dad’s struggles.
One of the inmates “encouraged me to work on my relationship with my dad, because he doesn’t have that with his own children,” she explains.
Stephanie now serves as coordinator of the Gardner-Webb Prison Fellowship team, encompassing some 30 students in all. About 10 of them—along with an older Prison Fellowship volunteer—visit Livesay at a time, adjusting their schedules around finishing term papers or cramming for next-day exams.
“The one thing [the students] bring more than anything else is unbridled enthusiasm,” says Ed Privette, Prison Fellowship executive director for ministry in North and South Carolina, as well as in Tennessee. “They come with an idea of responding to the call of God in a way that is uniquely different from anything they have ever experienced—to experience ministry in an edgy setting. And I think that’s exciting to them.”
Ed remembers accompanying Gardner-Webb students on their first venture into the prison five or six years ago. Their excitement mingled with “a little bit of angst” as students and inmates entered the chapel at the same time.
“But a beautiful thing started happening as the students got into the service,” Ed adds. “The inmates started vocally showing their enthusiasm and support, encouraging them. You could tell when the nervousness left and the joy of serving took over. And I think it’s that dialog that has developed between the two [groups] that has caused the ministry to flourish. It’s become a real warm relationship between the students and the inmates.”
The prisoners concur. In a thank-you letter to the students, inmate Scott wrote: “Our time here at first is such a drag. But when we have something positive to help us change our life from such shambles, we tend to jump at it. Even though ya’ll don’t have to come. It reminds me of God’s grace. The Greek word for grace means unmerited favor. In other words, we don’t deserve it, but still receive it regardless. I like to thank ya’ll for being such a blessing for me and everybody here. We’ve become a family in Christ.”
The students also reach out to prisoners’ children in the surrounding community, each year hosting an Angel Tree® Christmas party filled with games and crafts, food, and gifts given on behalf of the youngsters’ incarcerated parents. “It’s a really great way to transfer the love from the parent to the child,” says Stephanie. Her church, Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church, donates their facilities for the party, “and a lot of the older people help with food and decorations,” she says. Last Christmas they served 75 children.
Generation to Generation
James Murray loves seeing the different generations come together in ministry. Reflecting on Prison Fellowship’s three-decade history, “we have always brought diversity with race and church denomination,” he says, “but we’ve lacked in bringing diversity in age.”
First and foremost, James insists, building a new generation of volunteers is scriptural, “because our Father is a generational God”—who extends His faithfulness and calling through all ages. And on a practical level, adds James, who is 51, “we have to get the younger generation involved because our prison population is increasingly younger, and they speak a different language than we speak. We have to win the younger generation through the younger generation, through their language and cultural identity.”
A psychology major who plans to become an elementary school counselor, Stephanie intends to continue her ministry to prisoners. “I really love it,” she says, “and I think it’s really, really important”—pointing to the passages in the Bible that speak of “remembering the prisoner” and visiting those in prison. Reaching out to prisoners “is not something I just want to do for four years and drop.”
That’s the kind of thing Ed Privette likes to hear. “I think the sooner you can introduce the opportunity, the greater the likelihood that it will ‘stick’ and become a part of who these young men and women are,” he says. “I think it will lower barriers to serving in some unique ways for the rest of their lives.”