|Chaplain works with prisoners on ‘maximum’ ministry|
Corey Wagner, a prison inmate in Colorado, works on a pencil
drawing of the beheading of John the Baptist. A UMNS Web-only video
A UMNS Report
By Jan Snider*
June 25, 2008
Corey Wagner will never be free again.
But the cold cinderblock walls and barbed wire that surround him have become his sanctuary.
“If life imprisonment is going to keep me worshipping God and changing lives, so be it.”
With tattooed tears on his face, the 29-year-old Colorado inmate studies
the intricate detail taking shape on a pristine piece of paper. He
grabs a pencil stub and sharpens it by running it back and forth across
torn scraps. Carefully, he places the needle-sharp tip on his evolving
As Wagner begins to draw, the texture of freshly hewed lumber emerges.
He prays, “Father, this is your project. This is not mine. This is to
glorify you in Jesus’ name. I’m putting the pencils to the paper, and
you guide my hand.”
The Rev. Yong Hui McDonald is a United Methodist chaplain at the Adams County Detention Facility in Brighton, Colo.
A UMNS photo by Sally Shuler.
An image of a guillotine is his depiction of the beheading of John the
Baptist. It is just one of many illustrations that he and other inmates
have created for inclusion in the Maximum Saints devotional books edited
by United Methodist prison chaplain, The Rev. Yong Hui McDonald.
“Amazing stories, powerful stories are coming out,” says McDonald,
chaplain of the Adams County Detention Facility in Brighton, Colo.
“Jesus is right there and catching these people when they fall.”
After encouraging inmates to write their personal testimonies, McDonald
saw the prospect of a devotional book to be shared within the prison
community as well as beyond its walls. “When people start writing their
stories, they will experience healing because God will help them to
reflect what is missing in their lives,” McDonald says.
With the help of local United Methodist churches, the chaplain formed
the Transformation Project: Prison Ministry and raised enough funds in
2005 to publish the first book of prisoners’ spiritual reflections, Maximum Saints Make No Little Plans. Three years later, there are three volumes of Maximum Saints devotional books.
“When I say ‘maximum saints,’ that means they are using their gifts to
the maximum to serve the Lord and help others,” McDonald explains.
Often, she discovers “saints” among the Christian inmate leaders who
mentor other inmates and encourage them to share testimony or a creative
expression of their spiritual journeys.
Ordained by God is the
third devotional published
by the Transformation Project: Prison Ministry.
Her world of saints isn’t limited to the incarcerated. Volunteers have
embraced the project, and she has witnessed lives changing outside the
prison. Laura Nokes Lang is just one of many United Methodist volunteers
who raise money to print and distribute the Maximum Saints books to
inmates across the United States.
Lang started visiting the prison after learning about McDonald’s prison
ministry. “I think that we’re all prisoners in our own little cells,”
she says. “Sometimes we know it and sometimes we don’t, but we’re all
captive somehow of something – some bad habit, some addiction, some
relationship, and we don’t know how to get out. These inmates have found
a way out through God, and it’s just wonderful.”
When congregations read prisoners’ testimonies and experience a harsh
reality that is usually very distant from their own, they begin reaching
out to inmates. At first, Lang says, it was frightening to visit the
prison, but she found the inmates receptive and welcoming “because I was
there to give them something from my heart.”
Lang’s pastor, the Rev. Kay Palmer-Marsh of Westminster United
Methodist Church, says her Colorado congregation’s involvement in prison
ministry has open up the hearts and minds of parishioners.
“These are way beyond devotional stories,” she says. “These are
real-life stories of real-life people, not made up. The fact that I know
that these are people who have done some sort of crime and now they are
writing about it, it’s incredible.”
Wagner’s own story is a hard one. The California native grew up in a
broken home and joined a gang at age 11. He was incarcerated for the
first time a year later. Never getting past sixth grade, he nonetheless
earned his GED, but has spent much of his life in prison for offenses
including burglary, assault and murder. He was sentenced in April to
life without parole for the shooting death of another man more than two
The latest devotional book, Maximum Saints Ordained by God, is a
collection of Wagner’s art and stories. His stark revelations reveal his
hidden wounds just as his divine drawings speak of the healing power of
Christ. McDonald was never able to present Wagner a finished copy of
his book in person because he was transferred to a state prison in
Colorado after receiving a life-sentence for his crimes.
The Guarding Angel by Corey Wagner is one of the many inspirational drawings
in the book.
She reflects in the book’s introduction that knowing this talented
inmate has been a blessing. “When Wagner finishes his art for the Lord,
an angel picks it up and takes it to Jesus, and there is rejoicing in
heaven. We are created to give God glory with all we have and with all
our gifts. Wagner is doing just that.”
Proceeds from the book sales go back into the
Transformation Project, which is seeking 100 organizations or
individuals willing to donate $10 a month to sustain the book ministry.
McDonald is confident that there are many more Maximum Saints books to
The Transformation Project is a nonprofit corporation and can be reached
at 5209 Montview Blvd., Denver, CO 80207, or (303) 428-9293.
*Snider is producer for United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Jan Snider or Fran Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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