Freedom Behind Bars
As we turned off the highway and down the winding road toward Alabama’s Bullock County Prison, I wondered what I was doing. More than a year and a half earlier while under the power of God at the church altar, I had committed myself to this wonderful river of revival blessing. I wanted to flow wherever it would take me. My husband Bill and I had always been comfortable pastoring a church, and even in taking mission trips to foreign countries. But I had always feared visiting a prison.
As a young girl I had been a crime victim. I was sexually molested by a neighbour who was a prominent man in town and a deacon in the church. My silence had kept him out of prison. Now, 40 years later I was approaching the gate of a medium-security prison overcrowded with sex offenders, murderers, thieves, mental patients and drug dealers.
"How could we fast for revival and ignore the cries of those in prison? I went in spite of my fears."
Being around men I didn't know always unsettled me, in spite of inner healing. I often froze inside when a man came near me. Why would the Lord want me to come here?
We entered the prison. Then as the solid, grey chapel door swung open I felt a welcoming wave of God’s warm presence. A group of inmates all dressed in white turned toward us. Eagerly surprised, they ran down the corridor toward the dormitory cell block. “They're here! They're here!” they cried, unable to conceal their enthusiasm.
Were these the hardened criminals I had feared? As I got to know them, they seemed more like elementary school children. My apprehension began no subside. These were brothers in Christ, forgiven by the same blood of Jesus that had cleansed me. They had long since repented of violent crimes like the one done to me. Crimes committed in a moment of compulsive anger now tightly defined the parameters of their lives to this building. Some would be here until they died, forgotten by families, bearing the brunt of the anger of a society that can’t forgive and in some cases maybe shouldn’t.
Bill and I were ushered into the office of Chaplain Stephen Walker, recently appointed co-coordinator of all prison chaplains in the state of Alabama. Since August’96 when he and his wife Esther first visited the Pensacola outpouring, they had been praying for revival fire to fall at Bullock.
For several years he had carefully laid a foundation in discipling the core group of men at Bullock who wanted spiritual oversight. Chaplain Walker’s steps included providing access to a correspondence Bible school as well as on-site classes. These are available to every inmate. After meeting the rigorous requirements for graduation, inmates usually celebrated with cap and gown in the prison chapel. The recidivism rate among those who complete the Bible college is less than ten percent, shockingly lower than the national average of 80 percent.
One inmate touched by ministry was Jerry, serving what amounted to a life sentence. Jerry began reading a copy of my book, The River Is Here. Eager for more information, he wrote to me wanting anything else we had to fill his spiritual hunger. At the end of his letter, Jerry listed 13 blessings he wanted me to have. I had just preached about the power of blessing those who curse you, so I decided to call his chaplain and check him out.
I learned Jerry was a committed Christian. He has served ten years in prison and been saved for eight. He had finished the prison Bible college and Chaplain Walker trusted him. Jerry’s life had connected us with a new mission field. Our trip was a response to his plea for more. How could we fast for revival and ignore the cries of those in prison? I went in spite of my fears.
As our week of ministry unfolded, it became obvious that our coming was a divine appointment. We walked on a pavement of prayer. Inmates gathered in the chapel for an hour or more before services to intercede for the meetings. Their prayers created in them an air of expectation that God was going to move.
Every service that week exploded with worship led by Darrius Bell, one of the inmates soon to be up for parole. Darrius, because of his enormous talent, had been exploited as a child musician in a church setting. His emptiness had tempted him away from the Lord and the church and that wound him up in prison. It was there he gave his life back to the Lord. Inmates turned their faces turned toward heaven, clapped and sang their hearts out. l fully expected an earthquake to rock the prison and open the doors.
"After quickly calling him out of a tortured life, the Lord used the shock of his death to open others to repentance"
As the meetings Progressed, we found ourselves flowing in a new anointing for evangelism and a deep sense of urgency to call people to Jesus. Every night inmates made their way to the altar to return to the lord.
Some came for the first time. A prayer team of other inmates who had been “soaking in the river” shared the gospel and prayed with them to accept the Lord Jesus Christ.
One of our first encounters was with Michael, who had served 15 years thus far for murder, but had long ago given life to the Lord and repented of his crime. But after he had recently been rejected for parole, despondence crept into his spirit. As we prayed, the Holy spirit fell on Micheal. He was touched with “holy laughter” and then began to weep as he realized the Lord was mercifully lifting the gloom from his spirit. He spent the rest of the week witnessing to other inmates and urging them to the meetings. But Michael’s newfound urgency to talk to people about Jesus was coming to its critical moment.
On the Wednesday night, a 33-year-old inmate named Rusty came to the meeting. It was his first church service. Rusty had been institutionalized most of his life, first in an orphanage, and later, in a mental institution before he was sent to prison. At the end of the service, Chaplain Walker pulled Rusty aside, hugged him prayed with him. Before he went to bed, Micheal asked Rusty if he knew Jesus. Rusty replied that he did.
During the night, Rusty accidentally rolled off the top bunk in his sleep, and fell face-down on the concrete, jamming the bone of his nose into his brain. He died within moments as the other inmates in his dormitory-style cell stood by, helpless.
After quickly calling him out of a tortured life, the Lord used the shock of his death to open others to repentance. That night all his cell-mates came to the service. Before the message, I asked them all to stand inviting the other inmates to gather around them and pray for them. What I didn't know was that none of them were Christians. But at the end of the message, all of them poured down to the altar to receive the Lord Jesus Christ. They came back every night. We knew then that our coming that week had been appointed by God.
Death touched another life that week. Saturday night, a Muslim man received the news that his mother had died. He was crushed that he was unable to be with his family. Looking for any kind of spiritual help, he made his way to the chapel. As he came forward for prayer, an inmate shared the gospel with him and prayed for him to receive Jesus. The power of the Holy Spirit fell upon him and he went down under the power. After a while, he stood obviously shaken. He found Bill and me and eagerly kept shaking our hands, thanking us for being there and ministering to him.
The last night an inmate named Ted gave us a handwritten letter. He had developed a suicide plan and was waiting for the right moment to carry it out. He had decided to do it that Wednesday evening, when he happened to see an announcement about the revival meetings. He thought he would give God one last try. He came forward for prayer and gave his life to Jesus, returning every night. His letter overflowed with gratitude to God for sending us to intervene.
Seeing the Lord mercifully baptizing these inmates in a pool of forgiveness was pure pleasure. God was moving past society’s fears and into the hearts hardened by rough living, to rinse their spirits clean.
Newly found spiritual hunger drove many inmates to the altar for prayer as time permitted, the services were allowed to last only 90 minutes. But the end of the week found prisoners hungry for more. So on Saturday night, we asked Chaplain Walker to call any inmate who needed extra prayer to the chapel for a “soaking party” a concentrated session of prayer. About 30 inmates gave up their dinner to come early to the chapel. Former murderers, thieves and sex offenders were filled with the Holy Spirit, laughing, weeping and drinking their fill of the love of Jesus. Many were down on floor, falling under the power, receiving from the Lord’s presence. More than on had to be helped out of the chapel, drunk in the Spirit, to the cell block.
Harold, one of the inmates and chaplain’s assistants, who is 47 years old, was literally “brought up in prison” He has spent only one year out of prison since the age of 17. Three years ago, Harold turned his life over to Jesus, but had found it difficult to yield the presence of the Lord. But after the Holy Spirit began touching Chaplain Walker, Harold started receiving prayer. As we laid hands on Harold he collapsed on the floor, filled with the Holy Spirit.
As I prayed and saw the Lord touching prisoners, I realized that God had taken me behind prison walls to teach me a lesson in forgiveness. There is no crime, no matter how vile, that the blood of Jesus cannot cleanse. Nor is there anyone too hardened to be filled with His Spirit. But God did something more in me as I prayed for them.
Sharing the gospel and the blessings of Jesus’ love with offenders, many of whom had committed crimes like that done to me, helped me seal that painful chapter of my life. I needed to see that. As I blessed them, they received the love and forgiveness of someone like those they had victimized. There is power in forgiveness.
The Lord wanted me to stand in place of the victims of all their crimes and pray over their lives and intercessory prayer of blessing. Jerry’s letter had been prophetic, calling me there to bless men like the one who had cursed me.
As Bill and I left Bullock on Saturday night, we heard one inmate; his face pressed against the window of his cell, calling out, “Goodbye! Goodbye, God bless you! Please come back!”
“I’m coming back, Lord Jesus!” I replied.