When a crowd gathers on a prison yard, it’s often a warning sign. But when a Hope Event® brings people together on the yard, it’s an occasion to celebrate. Anytime hope comes onto the scene, prisoners notice.
Gerome, an incarcerated man in California, put it this way: “Oh, [the prisoners,] they’re listening. Something about music … that’ll draw people’s attention. And seeing people [volunteering] from the outside draws people’s attention. And then, when they hear that message … they’re hearing the same message told here [by volunteers] to their hearts.”
HOW HOPE EVENTS BEGAN
Rev. Aaron Johnson felt called to reach “the least of these.” He had served alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement and later held the role of secretary of corrections in North Carolina. For years, the plight of the prisoner moved him. In 1990, he pleaded with Prison Fellowship® to sweep his state with in-prison evangelism.
Soon, Prison Fellowship raised money, trained volunteers, recruited prominent speakers, and enlisted prison chaplains and corrections leaders to take part in a large-scale, pilot evangelism program in North Carolina. Wardens could host their own event or rely on the format designed by Prison Fellowship, usually including entertainment, powerful testimonies, prayer, and an invitation to follow Christ.
By the end of the pilot project, 345 events had taken place in North Carolina prisons, and more than 75% of the state’s prisoners heard the Gospel. Then, over time, Prison Fellowship held evangelism events on prison yards throughout the country.
Since 1991, Prison Fellowship Hope Events have reached more than 850,000 prisoners from coast to coast. Participants receive easy-to-read Bibles, information on joining in-prison faith communities, and copies of Prison Fellowship’s Inside Journal® newspaper, which features encouragement and guidance for incarcerated readers.
A prisoner named Carey used one word to describe a Hope Event’s impact: “miracles.”
SPREADING HOPE FROM COAST TO COAST
After serving more than 20 years in prison, Carey was ready to go home. In December, just a few weeks before his release date, a Hope Event came to his yard at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD) in San Diego, California.
With tears in his eyes, Carey said, “This is my second Hope Event, and it’s a little overwhelming sometimes. God truly changes your heart. When Jesus came, He came for the lost. The people that was hurting. So, I just feel blessed.”
Vibrant murals, all painted by incarcerated men, cover a large portion of the solid walls surrounding the yard. As the Hope Event began, the California sun helped cut the brisk morning air, reflecting off the razor wire. In the shade, against the towering walls, a worship band of prisoners and outside volunteers led songs of praise. Several volunteers shared personal testimonies and gave an invitation to seek Jesus.
This yard, one of several at RJD, is vast, with space for a Hope Event and much more—a group of men played soccer, others exercised at an outdoor gym area, and still others sat at picnic tables far away from the worship service. But there was something in the music and the message for everyone, even the prisoners who felt hesitant to attend up close.
As Gerome said, "Oh, they're listening."
'This is my second Hope Event, and it’s a little overwhelming sometimes. God truly changes your heart.'
A PLACE TO BELONG
When Stephen noticed the music from the soccer field, he stopped to hear the message. A prisoner in his late 20s, he hasn’t been incarcerated long. But he’d been behind bars long enough to see this Hope Event as “an escape from prison world.”
“Everyone knows prison is not a beautiful place,” said Stephen. “We try our best to make it livable, but this [event] is an escape to learn about forgiveness, about God. It's very important, and I’m very happy that y’all came.”
Meanwhile many listened closely as Roman, who is incarcerated at RJD, shared his testimony. From a young age, Roman had known abandonment and abuse. He turned to street life, seeking belonging in gangs. At age 18, Roman went to prison for murder.
Now, three decades later, Roman is grateful that his mother never stopped sending him scriptures in the mail. In desperation, he finally called out to Jesus in prison. He joined the Prison Fellowship Academy®, a life transformation program that helps participants replace criminal thinking and behaviors with renewed purpose and biblically based life principles. With the help of caring coaches, Roman learned to disentangle his identity from his past. Today, he has unwavering hope for whatever comes next.
“Even if God don’t let me out of prison, I will serve Him here wherever I’m at,” Roman said.
As volunteers in “HOPE” T-shirts prayed with prisoners, incarcerated men also lifted up volunteers in prayer. Carey noted the sense of community and belonging on the yard: “There’s no ‘you’re in regular clothes, and I’m in blue [prison uniform].’ It’s just God’s family. It’s an awesome feeling.”
As the event ended, a vocalist leaned into his mic. “How much time do we have still?”
Then a group of men responded in unison: “Forever!”
'There’s no ‘you’re in regular clothes, and I’m in blue [prison uniform].’ It’s just God’s family. It’s an awesome feeling.'
‘CHANGED FOR THE BETTER’
A Hope Event is not only a place for prisoners like Stephen and Carey to connect with people from the outside. It’s a way to discover other life-changing opportunities made possible by Prison Fellowship.
“I signed up for the Prison Fellowship Academy, so we’ll see if I get in,” said Stephen. “Thank you to everyone who made this possible.”
On the other side of the country, Everglades Correctional Institution is a level 5 security prison near Miami, Florida, where Prison Fellowship partnered with VOUS Church to host a Hope Event in December. Under gray skies, volunteers joined prisoners on the yard to experience a worship service and a message of the hope that only Christ brings.
Despite the cloud cover, the atmosphere on the prison yard was bright. Men in blue state-issued prison uniforms gathered by the stage to worship and hear the Gospel—some perhaps for the very first time. Songs about freedom and hope in Christ soared above the crowd of 225 prisoners. While some attendees bowed their heads in prayer, many looked up with hands raised.
“Friend, you might have made a mistake, but you are not a mistake,” said Pastor Rich Wilkerson Jr.
Certainly for Jorge, an Academy participant at Everglades, the message served as a reminder that he is more than the number on his prison uniform, more than the label “convict” or “inmate.” He said the Hope Event brought light to a place that is often dark and isolating.
“The Hope Event would bring a positive change to those who want it—those who would like to see prison changed for the better,” said Jorge.
He adds that Prison Fellowship programs create a real opportunity for that transformation. “You don’t get that a lot in this setting where everyone wants to be hardcore. Prison Fellowship is a place for family, for togetherness, for growth.”
'Prison Fellowship is a place for family, for togetherness, for growth.'
Brandon Boyce, a Prison Fellowship field director in Florida, remembers when he was the one standing in a prison uniform many years ago. He served time in his 20s after stealing to support his drug habit. Now, he knows firsthand the impact that the local church and loving volunteers can have in someone’s life.
Following the recent event at Everglades, Brandon said, “Hope is a new life, a life full of purpose.”
“The overarching reason I like to volunteer at Prison Fellowship is that I see, with my own eyes, the power of God to redeem a heart, to change a life,” said Joanne, a Prison Fellowship donor and volunteer.
Then as volunteers left the prison, a chaplain gave her perspective of a Hope Event’s lasting impact.
“These events are planting seeds,” the chaplain said. “One day can change a life beyond what you may get to see. People will come to me in the days and weeks following an event and say, ‘Hey, that event touched me. I heard something in a song or the message and I want to talk about it.’ It starts those conversations and leads to real life change.”
'Hope is a new life, a life full of purpose.'
THE POWER OF A HOPE EVENT
A Hope Event doesn’t bring Jesus to prison. He is already there. And this Easter, Prison Fellowship is once again preparing to share the hope of the Gospel on prison yards nationwide. Every year, teams of volunteers and Prison Fellowship staff lead a nationwide campaign of special Hope Events throughout Easter week, with an emphasis on Jesus’ sacrifice, His resurrection, and His victory over sin and death.
This longstanding tradition began with Prison Fellowship’s founder Chuck Colson. After serving seven months in federal prison, Chuck vowed never to forget the prisoners he left behind, and out of that promise Prison Fellowship was born. He and his wife, Patty, spent many Easters worshipping with incarcerated men and women. Still today, the Easter season is a sacred time to celebrate the Good News in prison and remember those who spend holidays behind bars.
This year, Prison Fellowship expects to host 68 Hope Events in 55 correctional facilities. Events will feature testimonies, worship music from local churches, and speakers like Lisa Kratz Thomas. No two events will be exactly the same—and neither will the lives of many men and women who will hear about Jesus.
When the Spirit of God moves on a prison yard, it’s powerful to see what can happen in just one day.
The Easter season is a sacred time to celebrate the Good News in prison and remember those who spend holidays behind bars.