Art Hallett was the only one in his teenage group of friends who was never arrested. He credits it to his mother wisely pushing him to enlist in the Air Force at age 17. But his freedom doesn't mean he has never been to prison. In fact, there hasn't been a month in the past 30 years that Hallett, who serves as the director of prison ministries for Evangelism Explosion, hasn't gone to prison to share the Gospel.
THE FREEDOM TOUR
Six-foot-one, wearing khakis and a white jersey with the word "Soulja" inscribed on the back, Hallett waves his flute in the air. His voice booms into the crowd of blue prisoner uniforms as he says, "Heroes are made in the struggle for freedom!"
At 8:45 on a misty Illinois morning, 80 incarcerated men have piled into the muggy gym at Lawrence Correctional Center. They're here to be inspired by a crew of musicians like Hallett who are a part of Prison Fellowship®'s "Freedom Tour." For the past seven years, Prison Fellowship Illinois Field Director Mary Johnson has been collecting musicians—Gospel singers, rappers, hip hop artists, jazz flautists—to bring Hope Events into Illinois prisons under the banner of Black History Month.
Why a Black History Month event? Illinois' prison population is 58 percent African American, even though African Americans make up only about 15 percent of the general population. The audience for this type of event is big. And many prisoners will show up for a Black History Month concert who won't necessarily come to a religious service.
"It's an open door with the [Department of Corrections]," explains Johnson, who has worked for Prison Fellowship for 20 years. "They want quality programming. And we knew that it would draw men out for quality programming to hear the Gospel—those who wouldn't come to a church service would come to a Black History event … and it would change lives."
THE YEAR OF JUBILEE
"Did you know that this is the year of Jubilee, the year of release?" Johnson asks the crowd. Then she explains that every 50 years the Jewish calendar recognizes the ancient practice that God gave to His people. During the Old Testament Jubilee, debts would be forgiven, God's mercies would be declared, and slaves and prisoners would be freed.
"Freedom is gonna reign in here because our God is a God who frees," Johnson said.
Elder Charleston Day (E.D.) of the Detroit hip-hop group The Gideon Crew, takes the microphone. "You can be incarcerated but not locked up," he tells the audience. Then the other musicians join him to sing "Freedom Song," a piece they composed specifically for the tour.
AN ANSWER TO PRAYER
During a prayer near the end of the service, Hallett urges the men to respond in faith to the call to seek God's forgiveness and surrender their lives to Christ. Several hands shoot into the air.
Consequently, out of the 1,500 prisoners from the 13 prisons who attended the Hope Events, over 350 indicated that they wanted to give their lives to Christ.
One attendee, William, wrote in response to the event at his prison:
"I seriously considered not attending this event … Quite frankly I wanted to engage in activities that satisfy the flesh. However the Spirit moved my feet against my will. From the moment I entered the gym room I felt the presence of God. Most importantly the festivities were so amazing I couldn't prevent tears of joy from flowing freely down my cheeks."
For Hallett, feedback like this is a simple reminder that God is using him to help set people free.
"I love shaking the hands of the men and women that I know are connected with somebody who's praying for them on the outside," he says. "I know that every time we come in and do what we do and souls get saved, we are an answer to the prayer of someone on the outside."