Prison Fellowship's Hope Events team is finding new ways to bring the Gospel to men and women behind bars.
Though COVID-19 closed prison doors, hope found another way in.
Starting with a recorded Easter celebration, featuring musical performances, testimonies, and a beautiful altar call, Prison Fellowship® has partnered with departments of corrections to bring Hope Events to prison—safely.
"Once the pandemic hit, we knew we had to shift gears," says Jennifer Lowrey, national director of Hope Events.
Prison Fellowship Hope Events introduce prisoners to the hope of Jesus Christ through yard events featuring inspirational speakers, musicians, and other attractions. We spoke with Jennifer to find out how she and her team are keeping hope alive during the pandemic, a time when one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations needs it most.
Prison Fellowship: When the pandemic hit and prisons closed, what made your Prison Fellowship Hope Event team so intent on finding a way in?
Jennifer Lowrey: Most prisons are locked down and programs suspended. In this environment, we moved to look at ways we could bring hope virtually. We are trying several options for getting Virtual Hope Events inside, including hosting socially distanced watch parties as new events are completed.
Because of FloodlightTM, our new online portal that provides free, high-quality video content shareable on prison televisions and devices, we are continuing to build on Virtual Hope Events. If we can't be there live, then we can share this resource—either accessibly for individual prisoners through Floodlight or viewed together at socially distanced watch parties. We believe Virtual Hope Events will continue to be offered after the COVID-19 crisis passes, letting us reach into more prisons than before.
Your team had its first modified in-person Hope Event at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Alabama, with Grammy Award-winning artist Lecrae in September. How did you come up with that approach?
Jeremy Miller, the field director in Alabama, was the one who first proposed the idea. He saw that some churches were coming and doing services outside the fence. He thought, Wow, I bet we can do some Hope Events like that. As soon as I heard him say it, I thought, That could work. We could bring hope and the Gospel without putting anybody in jeopardy.
The St. Clair event featured high-quality music and the Gospel message, much like past events have. How did you pull off the logistics of this event during a pandemic?
We set up outside the prison's perimeter, with a flatbed stage. We didn't have to go in at all. The [incarcerated] men were masked and socially distanced on the yard. The warden and the chaplain were inside with the men. The prisoners were standing on a marked off grid, like what you would see on a football field, and each man was able to stay socially distant in his section.
I was just overjoyed that we were able to do something live, particularly at St. Clair, which is maximum security. It was really gratifying. The [Alabama] Department of Corrections closed off a city road for the event. They had a drug dog sniff around our cars. There was pretty intense security, even being outside the fence, but everyone was really nice. It all went well.
You’ve done this new outside-the-fence style of Hope Event at least three times now and are planning several more to come, despite the pandemic. What explains the success of this style of event?
The thing that we're seeing with departments of corrections is that the morale boost is really important to them. They are looking at and sometimes specifically targeting the audience … but no one is required to come. The prisons where we have gone have been so appreciative of anything that will encourage and offer something positive in a time where there is so much isolation, loneliness, and fear.
At St. Clair, we had 250 [attendees] because they told us that was the maximum they could do. At Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama, it was around 300. We had 400 attend the South Carolina event at the Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution, all of which is really amazing to me. It's such a great example of how God puts an idea in someone's head, and it just blossoms.
To date, your team has served more than 800,000 men and women behind bars through Hope Events. How has this unprecedented year impacted your work?
The field has done such a heroic job. It's been really neat to see the opportunities we've got in front of us. The excitement from the field is something you can just feel because there are opportunities to go now, to at least get close. That's what God has called us to do, and there's the longing to get back [inside prisons]. Every time we can get a little closer, it's a joy and a privilege.
It's really making us rely on the Holy Spirit. All of the things we would normally do that would give us that personal contact, we couldn't do [during the pandemic]. We're entirely, we are absolutely, 100% dependent on God. Especially now. We can't do things like we did before; it's undefined. We don't know from minute to minute how things are going to play out. We have to start each day saying, "Lord, help us to hear Your voice, go where You're sending us, and really discern where to put our energies."
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