COVID-19 forced Blackburn Correctional Center to close its doors to visitors, but that didn't stop dedicated volunteers and DOC staff from serving incarcerated men.
It was an odd sight: A wild horse sprinting around a Kentucky prison yard, trying to evade his pursuer. The horse's name was Sushi, and like his namesake, he was known for being raw. He had never been ridden—an "unbroken" horse, as they say in the horse-riding world.
The man chasing Sushi was Todd Pierce, a champion bareback rider, horse trainer, and pastor. Todd and his Riding High Ministries team were there for a Prison Fellowship Hope Event™, along with Prison Fellowship® staff and volunteers, to share the Gospel with incarcerated men inside Blackburn Correctional Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Todd used the analogy of building a relationship with the untamed horse as an illustration to share with the men how Christ wants a relationship with us and brings our rebellious wills into line with His good, life-giving plans.
In response, 50 men made decisions to put their faith in Christ or rededicate their lives to Him.
JUST THE BEGINNING
Four of the men who rededicated their lives to Christ—Johnathon, Robert, Edward, and Raul—wanted more of the inspiration and encouragement they experienced on the yard that day. So they enrolled in the first Prison Fellowship Academy® class at their facility.
The Academy is a year-long journey to becoming a new person. Academy participants unlearn negative patterns of thinking that landed them in prison and replace them with healthy ways of thinking that are rooted in biblical values.
Johnathan, Robert, Edward, and Raul—along with the other Academy participants—knew they were in for a year of intense courses and inner spiritual work. But they had no idea they would end their year amid a global pandemic.
A CHANGE IN PLANS
After the class met for 10 months, Kentucky field director for Prisoner Fellowship Scott Halsey said, "[The men] have connected really well and know each other's backgrounds, so this Academy class already has a well-established community. It's already like a family."
One of the things that makes family so special is shared memories that come through events. An event Academy participants share is their graduation at the end of the program. The men in the Academy were eagerly awaiting their graduation in May. But then COVID-19 forced Blackburn to lock down and begin social distancing.
Each Academy is a unique partnership between a state's department of corrections (DOC) and Prison Fellowship. At Blackburn, that partnership includes Warden Amy Robey and the prison chaplain, Aaron Mobley. When it became clear that the facility would be closing because of the health crisis, Chaplain Mobley was concerned about the men and wanted to make sure the shutdown would affect them as little as possible.
He had an idea: Why not continue the Academy classes virtually?
Chaplain Mobley talked it over with Prison Fellowship and Warden Robey, and they agreed to host classes over Zoom, a web-based videoconferencing program. Things went so smoothly that when it came time to host the graduation, they decided to do it online, making it the first Zoom graduation in Academy history.
'PROMOTED INTO SOMETHING NEW'
Once the Zoom graduation began, nine men dressed in khaki uniforms—Academy participants—filed into the room and awaited permission to be seated in socially distanced chairs. Joining the men on the Zoom meeting from the outside were Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers, along with family and friends of the incarcerated men.
Scott, who was hosting the event, said, "This Academy class was endangered by the pandemic, but [Chaplain Mobley's] dedication and innovation made it possible to continue." Warden Robey also participated in the occasion. She thanked volunteers for helping the men change their lives. Then it was time to hear from one of the Academy participants, Robert.
Before the Academy, "I had no compassion, no love. I was a drug dealer and drug addict before," he said. But now, he says,
I no longer look at people as a dollar sign or what I can get from them. I look at people with compassion and love. Love conquers all. You will get out what you put in. God is faithful, and He will grow you. If you start practicing today, you will make it a habit tomorrow.
Next, Todd Pierce—the man who rode Sushi at the prison one year earlier—joined from his ranch in Idaho. He was thrilled to see what's happened as a result of the Hope Event. "You have chosen not to be a victim of your past mistakes," he said. "The possibilities are now endless. You are not graduating from something; you are being promoted into something new—a new life."
'IT'S BEEN A GOOD YEAR'
Some of the men bore witness to the change they experienced in the Academy when going up to receive their certificates for completing the program. "This isn't a graduation," said one man. "This is the beginning of the second chapter of my life. Thank you for forming me into the man I am today."
Another man said to those involved in the Academy, "You taught us how to deal with our feelings," and then burst into tears. "I've dealt with a lot of resentment," he added. "It's been a good year."
Another said, "This program has given me a different outlook on my life and who I’m going to be for my family for the rest of my life."
A FUTURE FILLED WITH HOPE
The graduation for the first Academy class at Blackburn is perhaps best summed up in these remarks from Todd, made during the ceremony:
I can feel God's presence on y'all. You’ve never been out of the reach of God's love for you. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to build men. It's rare I find some that are humble enough to become teachable. But you men are. I am so grateful for the volunteers, the donors, [to] Prison Fellowship for their investment, because this is how we invest generationally. You men are worth every investment I can make. God has already written this beautiful story about you. I am so proud of you as a dad would be to his sons. You are not defined by the past. Your future is filled with hope.
You're not an ex-con. You're a child of God. And that changes everything.
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