Hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5:5, NIV)
In the fall of 2020, a Prison Fellowship Hope Event™ took place at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, Tennessee's highest security prison. Although modified to comply with the facility’s COVID-19 restrictions, the event still provided the prisoners a brief respite from the challenges of life behind bars.
For James J. Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, the event felt like a homecoming.
A long-time executive in the media industry, James used to be more at home in boardrooms than prison cells. When he first met Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, Chuck encouraged James to begin serving those behind bars. Soon James participated in Prison Fellowship's volunteer training.
Later, while he and his wife Martha were living near Nashville, James began to lead a life-skills class at Riverbend. Twelve prisoners attended James' class, which was part of a prerelease program. One of these was William, a 30-year-old former drug dealer who had been locked up for a decade. Over the next year and a half, William learned from James how to interview for a job, how to create a personal budget, and how to carry himself as a salesperson—all preparation for gainful employment and success in the future.
After completing the course, William asked James to be his mentor. James drove back to Riverbend once a month to spend time with William and encourage him to make positive choices. Visits from family and friends were rare for William.
"For him to show real interest, and come in and show genuine care and concern, and take time out of his day to come inside of a maximum-security prison to see me—it was very special," says William, who is now living free. He found a job, earned a degree in business administration, and got married. Today he and James are still friends.
James continued teaching the life-skills class at Riverbend for seven years. After moving to the West Coast and later joining Prison Fellowship as president and CEO, he returned to Riverbend for the fall 2020 Hope Event.
'Everyone was filled with the Spirit, and it was astounding to see how God had prepared speakers, musicians, pastors, and everyone to speak the exact words that were needed for the day.'
James Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship
REACHING THROUGH THE RAZOR WIRE
Prison Fellowship Hope Events introduce prisoners to the hope of the Gospel through inspirational speakers, musicians, and other attractions. These celebrations give incarcerated men and women a message of hope, a Spirit-filled worship service, and a chance to say yes to Jesus.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons closed to volunteers, in-prison programming, and visitation. So, Prison Fellowship shifted gears. At Riverbend, Hope Darst and the worship band of The Belonging Co, a Nashville church, led incarcerated men in soul-stirring worship songs. From a professional-class stage setup just outside the prison fence, the message of hope and encouragement rang out. A large screen allowed all prisoners—even those on the farthest part of the yard—to see and participate.
Throughout the event, volunteers could see attendees through the fence, through multiple rows of razor wire. As God put prisoners on their hearts, volunteers prayed for them—collectively and individually. Together, many raised their hands in praise and in prayer.
"Everyone was filled with the Spirit," said James, "and it was astounding to see how God had prepared speakers, musicians, pastors, and everyone to speak the exact words that were needed for the day."
The Hope Event at Riverbend was just one of a three-day series of impactful events at three different facilities, also including the Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center and the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility. In all, almost 200 prisoners made public decisions to follow Christ or to rededicate their lives to Him. Prison Fellowship offered the Inside Journal Life Recovery Bible to each person who made a decision of faith.
'Nothing captures that moment of stepping into new beginnings like stepping into new life with Jesus on Easter.'
OUR TIME-HONORED TRADITION
Modified Hope Events like Riverbend'’s outside-the-fence program continue to serve thousands of prisoners during the pandemic, a time when incarcerated men and women need hope the most. Again and again, departments of corrections have shared that Hope Events and volunteer action are boosting morale. More than 3,000 prisoners have heard the Gospel since March 2020.
Prison Fellowship hosts Hope Events throughout the year, but our Easter celebrations hold a special place in our hearts. Once a year, we gather with our incarcerated brothers and sisters to mark Resurrection Sunday, a tradition started by Chuck and Patty Colson.
"Nothing captures that moment of stepping into new beginnings like stepping into new life with Jesus on Easter," says James.
Many men and women in prison are open to hearing the message of Christ's hope at Easter. Then, and in all seasons, Hope Events bring the living hope of the Gospel with people who long for its power to make them new.
'It helped me realized how bad I hurt my family when I was doing drugs. It also helped me grow closer to God and helped me receive Him in my life. Thank y’all so much. I hope to hear from y’all again.'
Joshua, Hope Event participant, after receiving Christ for the first time
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