From its inception in 1926, Black History Month has always been about looking back, honoring the countless accomplishments of Black Americans who came before us. Thanks to a team of dedicated volunteers, incarcerated men and women in the Midwest are continuing the tradition.
A DEDICATED TEAM
Every February, a handful of talented speakers and musicians take off time from work, say goodbye to their families, and head to Illinois for a week spent in various prisons. Their mission: to bring the Gospel to incarcerated men and women through a special Prison Fellowship® Hope Event™.
Prison Fellowship sponsors Hope Events throughout the year, introducing prisoners to the love of Jesus Christ through inspiring yard events. Twenty years ago, Prison Fellowship began spearheading a special two-hour Hope Event in honor of Black History Month.
This Hope Event team includes speaker Art Hallett, multiple award-winning gospel music artist Sonnie Day, and The Gideon Crew, a hip-hop group out of Detroit. Every year, the team prayerfully chooses a theme, such as freedom or unity. They also highlight a Black historical figure whose life story embodies that theme.
"We have many prisons that ask us to come," says Field Director, Mary Johnson. "We have such favor because it’s done with excellence. They know they don't have to worry about anything. We are bringing quality people and music, and we do it on time. It's physically exhausting, but it's spiritually supercharged."
'When you come into a prison, hope has to be the foundation and what you're bringing.'
—Sonnie Day, Prison Fellowship Platform Artist
A THOUGHTFUL PROGRAM HONORING BLACK HISTORY
The program opens with Sonnie Day, whose music has been known to move listeners to tears—and to dance. She often throws out a challenge to the audience about their step-dancing skills.
"They like to prove that Chicagoans can step as well as anyone from Detroit," Mary laughs.
Then Art Hallett shares a well-researched, engaging presentation. In past years, he has featured Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, using posters as visual aids—and always making a strong Gospel connection.
"Art gets a standing ovation," Mary reports. "What he is sharing matters. He is telling them the truth about the history of the people who went before them to show them that there is hope … that God has an ordained purpose for every one of them."
The last act is The Gideon Crew, whose Christ-exalting beats resonate with younger prisoners and whose words seem to touch the hearts of everyone present. They also talk about discipleship and how to help one another walk with Christ.
"Tonight … was beautiful," prisoner Lester Walker said after an event he attended last year. "[We all came] together as one and [shared] something that we all love, and that's God. God is so good. … It's like He picks up the pieces that we drop and puts it together for us."
'[We] want to be openly honest about how valuable they are, and how important they are to God. How important they are to us. That they matter. And they are somebody. And we came on purpose to see them.'
—Mary Johnson, Prison Fellowship Field Director, Illinois
INSPIRING HISTORY MAKERS
The Hope Event team encourages prisoners to look back on the Black brothers and sisters whose lives inspire and even further back to the cross, where Jesus died in our place and rose for our victory. But prisoners are also compelled to look ahead, to a life full of possibility and promise in Christ.
Jeffrey Ray Walls took part in the Hope Event in February 2020 at the Sheridan Correctional Center. He said he experienced God's Spirit there and that his vision for his God-given purpose is coming into focus.
"[I hope I] can reach as many people as I can once I leave here," Jeffrey said. "I hope that I can … speak to at-risk youth when I get out, go into junior high school, high schools, and juvenile detention centers and then try and get back into the prison system as a volunteer and talk to the men and say, if I can change and transform through God … they can too."
These are the kinds of dreams—and the kind of hope—that the Hope Event team longs to foster.
"We tell them, you don’t know what your destiny is when you leave here," Mary says. "But you can be a history-maker as well."
'This is not the end. This is the beginning.'
—Ayotunde, Incarcerated Person