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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 image.

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 artwork.

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.

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.”

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.

Transformation Project

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.

Maximum Saints
Ordained by God
is the
third devotional published
by the Transformation Project: Prison Ministry.

“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.

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.”

Hard stories

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 years ago.

The Guarding Angel by Corey Wagner is one of the many inspirational drawings
in the book.

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.

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 be written.

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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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