It's a warm and clear afternoon at the California Institute for Women (CIW) in Corona, California. The parking lot is buzzing with eager, smiling people putting on black shirts and name badges and making sure they have their IDs. They're about to "process in" to the prison and kick off a weekend full of Hope Events, where speakers, musicians, and other performers, along with local volunteers, convey the life-changing Easter message that Jesus came to seek and save the lost.
Easter is a special time for Prison Fellowship® not only because of the importance of Jesus' resurrection but also because our founder, Chuck Colson, routinely spent his Easters behind bars. Each year, a swarm of volunteers, performers, and Prison Fellowship staffers continue that legacy. "Nothing captures that moment of stepping into new beginnings like stepping into new life with Jesus on Easter," says Prison Fellowship President and CEO James J. Ackerman.
That's just what happened at CIW, the first of three prisons to enjoy a special Hope Event™ that Easter 2019 weekend.
THE HOPE OF EASTER
It can be chaotic getting more than 80 visitors checked into a prison and setting up speakers, instruments, and chairs. Sensing the growing confusion, California Field Director Maurice Woods calls out, "Hey! Let's just slow things down and pray for the Holy Spirit because without Him, none of this is gonna work."
Everyone stops and prays. By the time they are done, there is a sense of peace and anticipation. The stage is set in front of a 15-feet high concrete wall. The Saddleback Mountains peek over top and cascade out across the horizon.
Before long the women of CIW start lining up at the gate to come in. Twenty-five show up. Then another 25. And another. And another. Eventually, some 350 women make their way into the bleachers surrounding the stage. Each of them is handed a personalized notecard relating God's love for them signed by caring Prison Fellowship volunteers.
'IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT THE MUSIC AND THE SPEAKERS'
The event kicks off with a local band leading everyone in worship. From the beginning, there is a sense of joy. When local singer/songwriter Richard Andrew sings, "I am no longer a slave to fear. I am a child of God," the prisoners are swaying their arms as tears stream down many of their faces. Then Alexis Belmonte shares her testimony and tells the women, "Your past doesn't disqualify you from the Kingdom. As a matter of fact, it qualifies you for it."
From there, Temika Moore and her band lead the crowd in more worship, and Kay Warren encourages the women to keep moving forward and to come to the Jesus they are hearing about if they don’t already know Him. Kenzie, a young woman who will spend the rest of her life in prison, says, "Programs like this really helped me and made me who I am. It's not just about the music and the speakers. It's about having a life-changing experience."
As the sun sets behind the facility, Maurice then invites the Prison Fellowship team of volunteers, performers, and staff members onto the stage and says they would be there for anyone who wanted to pray to receive Christ or to be encouraged.
Two hundred fifty women flood the stage.
And that is just day one.
'YOUR STORY IS STILL BEING WRITTEN'
Day two starts at California Rehabilitation Center for Men (CRC) in Norco. It's about 7:30 in the morning and, like the day before, a horde of volunteers begin forming in the parking lot. After the facility officers check all the bags and gear, the Prison Fellowship team begin entering the facility in groups of 10 (a security precaution common in prisons).
The CRC Hope Event is held on the main yard, which is centrally located and just in front of the facility's fire department. The warden and her staff witness the whole event. A local worship band kicks things off as more than 450 incarcerated men make their way to the field in front of the stage. One prisoner named Maldonado says, "This gives me hope and inspiration and an opportunity to be seen like Christ sees me—clean and forgiven."
Then hip-hop artist Nehemiah, who had his own close encounters with the law, takes the stage and gets the men waving their hands and bobbing their heads to his Gospel-laced tracks. Scott Winters, an actor and Prison Fellowship volunteer, emcees the event. He encourages the men to continue overcoming the adversity in their lives by relying on Jesus. "Your story is still being written," he tells them. "Jesus would rather die than live without you. He went to the cross because you are so valuable to Him."
By the end of the event, dozens of men are with volunteers, praying to invite Jesus into their lives.
That momentum carries over into the last event.
EASTER BEHIND BARS
About half of the volunteers hurry to make their way from CRC to the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino for the last Hope Event of the day. It is overcast when the event starts at 1:30, but the sun breaks through by the time the event is over—a fitting picture of light overcoming the darkness.
Scott Winters and Nehemiah take the stage once again, supported by a local praise band and two sign-language interpreters, who are there so that several hearing-impaired men can participate. Because of the facility's high security level, the men sit in designated areas throughout the event, but that doesn't stop them from raising their hands, dancing, and worshipping.
Midway through the event butterflies appear over the field, flying over the men in the yard. "It was such a sign of renewal and hope and joy," says Jennifer Lowrey, who helped plan all three Hope Events for that weekend.
This event ends just like the others—with prisoners streaming toward the front to find freedom in Christ. "Watching the altar call at CIM to close out the weekend and seeing a deaf man being led to Christ in sign language by a CDCR staff brought tears to my eyes," says Audrey Santos-Fay, Prison Fellowship’s regional director for California.
One incarcerated man sums up the whole weekend when he says, “This event was not just Prison Fellowship speaking to us on the yard, but God speaking to us.”
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