April 2018 saw one of the deadliest prison riots in South Carolina in 25 years. The incident at Broad River Correctional Institution left seven prisoners dead and 17 injured. Across the state, maximum- and medium-security facilities spent six months on lockdown to curb the violence.
The tragedy made headlines only to join numerous similar instances in other U.S. prisons. Too often, destructive influences and dangerous personalities perpetuate brokenness behind bars.
But light still seeps through the cracks.
Men and women on prison yards nationwide are discovering the hope of Jesus Christ at a Prison Fellowship® Hope Event. These dynamic one- or two-day events feature inspirational speakers, musicians, and performers who bring the light of the Gospel to men and women who desperately crave hope. At a Hope Event™, prisoners find respite from the challenges of prison life and a safe place to encounter Christ—many for the first time. Those who respond to Him may take a next step to join a faith community.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
(John 1:5, NIV)
SHINING IN THE DARKNESS
Last October, Broad River welcomed a Prison Fellowship Hope Event into its chapel. The Gospel-centered occasion—one of the first in-prison events in South Carolina since the April conflict—could not have been better timed.
Only 50 prisoners attended the event in the prison's chapel, due to lingering security concerns. Men throughout the rest of the prison could watch on closed-circuit TV. Two Christian comedians, Akintunde and GRIFF, lightened the mood in the chapel and took turns presenting Christ's truth to men of all faith backgrounds.
Some audience members had sentences of up to 40 years, and Robert* had spent most of his lengthy term burdened by the guilt and shame of his past actions. He had taken responsibility and accepted the debt he owed, yet forgiveness and peace felt out of reach.
Then James, a Prison Fellowship volunteer, gave the altar call. Thirty-seven men approached the front and spilled into the aisles, forming the shape of a cross. Robert was one of them.
Later, the warden said, "We definitely want to do that again."
Forgiveness and peace felt out of reach. Then a Prison Fellowship volunteer gave the altar call. Thirty-seven men approached the front and spilled into the aisles, forming the shape of a cross.
HOLY MOMENTS OF HOPE
Each Hope Event not only sparks an interest in the salvation Jesus Christ offers; it can also light a fire in the hearts of prisoners to continue living for Him and to find hope in all circumstances.
In December, a Christmas-themed Hope Event held over the course of two weekends brought comfort and joy to about 200 maximum-security prisoners on all four yards at California’s Salinas Valley State Prison. Classical musicians joined church volunteers—some of whom frequent this facility once a week—to turn the prison gym into a haven for holiday worship. Prisoners on each yard boldly shared their testimonies to the crowd. Scott, a Prison Fellowship volunteer, had been praying faithfully with his team that the prisoners attending might be receptive to the Holy Spirit.
"I am pretty sure our visit to that yard was the first time that a worship service of hope was conducted there," explains Scott. When the invitation to believe in Jesus came over the loud speakers, he saw dozens of hands go up. In total, 40 prisoners on the four yards either made first-time commitments or rededicated their lives to Christ.
On a yard heavy with gang activity, a public commitment to the Lord can be a bold display.
For those already professing faith, the event brought courage and strength.
For those already professing faith, the event brought courage and strength. One incarcerated man, Dexter, approached Scott after the final song to share his story. That morning, Dexter was spending quiet time with the Lord in his cell and began to weep. The mere thought of volunteers, musicians, and speakers willingly serving in Jesus' name behind bars overcame him.
They embraced and prayed that Dexter would stay strong in his walk. "It was a holy moment," says Scott.
Another prisoner said, "You made me feel like a human being!"
Yet another prisoner said, "For the first time in 20 years, I could let down my guard and sing nostalgic [Christmas] songs."
Scott adds, "Many men from both yards made sure to thank us for coming and [asked us] to please keep coming, as it makes a difference in their lives."
KINDLING HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
In addition to responding to Christ, the men at Broad River made other important decisions that day, too. Because of the event's emphasis on family relationships, many men were moved to sign up for Angel Tree®, a program that creates pathways to reconciliation for prisoner parents and their children. This introduction to Prison Fellowship programming also offers other opportunities to prisoners, like the Prison Fellowship Academy®, Connection Classes, and more.
"This even was the perfect opportunity to let men know that they haven't been forgotten by people outside," says James, a Prison Fellowship volunteer at Broad River.
We may only begin to grasp the enduring impact of a Hope Event—not only on those incarcerated, but on their cellmates, spouses, children, and ultimately the communities to which they return. And we can look forward to the ripple effect for generations ahead.
I have heard so much about the testimonies and one-on-one prayers. The music was very inspirational. What made it meaningful to the men was the victories of men who have been right where they are. In a place where there so much brokenness, we all witnessed hope. … Some of them don't get mail. They feel forgotten. Men who have been right where they are rode in from all over the state just to show them some love. I don't even know how many guys have approached me since then and have told me how much it meant to them. Hearing personal testimony from men who have been right where they are, and have recovered through a relationship with Jesus Christ, is their hope.
Jay, Prison Fellowship volunteer, Bridgeport Correctional Center in Texas
"It's amazing how a one-time event can plant many seeds," says Prison Fellowship volunteer Arlene.
*Name has been changed. Article updated February 2019.
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