Set against the backdrop of multi-million-dollar homes, the Carol Vance Unit in Richmond, Texas, is small and unassuming for a prison. Behind the correctional facility's gates is the longest-running Prison Fellowship Academy®.
Jerrel Martin has been at Carol Vance for less than two years, only entering a life of crime at 40 after his business went downhill. Until his incarceration, Martin didn't think he had much use for God, whom he blamed for the death of his four brothers to a childhood disease. But after staring at the inside of a prison for long enough, Martin decided to stop giving God the cold shoulder.
"God put me on Earth for a purpose," he says in a strong Louisiana cadence. "A living dog is better than a dead lion. As long as you're living, there's still hope."
Today, Martin is one of the leaders of a tight-knit group of men that meets regularly for worship, teaching, discipleship, and prayer to encourage each other to grow in faith while behind bars. It's Church. Prison Church. And it's clear that God is here.
LIFE TOGETHER ... ON THE INSIDE
While it's yet to be documented how many prisoners regularly attend Christian services in America, more than 14,000 prisoners nationwide participate in Prison Fellowship classes every month. And that’s not including the thousands who attend services like Prison Fellowship Hope Events each year!
In the Christian community at Carol Vance, lives change every day. After coming to Christ, guys have abandoned gang affiliations, and members of rival gangs have become friends and brothers in Christ. Men pray for the healing of each other's family members and for the people they've hurt. They encourage each other to walk faithfully in the face of temptation to return to old habits and thought patterns. They even take up tithes and offerings, not in the form of cash, but in toiletries and other items that they then donate to the homeless or to those in their midst who can't afford them.
While their circumstances might be different, Martin doesn't think the church on the inside is all that different from the church on the outside.
"Every church has problems, whether it's here or there," Martin says. "[Someone once told me], 'If you're looking for the perfect church, you're not going to find it (on this side of heaven). If you do, once you get there, it won't be perfect anymore.'"
THE CHURCH BEHIND BARS
"The church behind bars is a diverse, vibrant, and active body of believers knit together and drawn to Jesus by the need for forgiveness and transformation," says James J. Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship. "They are men and women aware of their brokenness, overcoming their shame, and praying for their restoration. They are tens of thousands strong and live all around you, but often go unnoticed, unthought-of, and overlooked. They are those of the highways and hedges, gathered by Christ and looking for you, the church on the outside, to come in to visit them."
For Martin and others like him, knowing that the church on the outside remembers them makes all the difference
"Once released from prison, I'd like to see the church welcome us with open arms, be there to love us, encourage, and support us," says Martin. "It would mean a great deal to me because as men stay connected to the church and the church continues to embrace them, we would have a much better chance of becoming productive citizens in our communities."
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