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Prison ministry reaches out to those feeling forgotten

Joe Collins is serving a 17-year sentence at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution
in Nashville, Tenn., where he helps coordinate a pen pal program with members of Christ United Methodist Church in nearby Franklin.
A UMNS video image.

By Lilla Marigza*
Dec. 3, 2008 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

In a maximum-security prison on the outskirts of a major city, some inmates had not had a visitor in more than a quarter century of incarceration until members of a nearby United Methodist church stepped in.

Inmate Bill Pelfry attends a Disciple Bible Study class inside the prison.
A UMNS video image.

A pen pal ministry and visitation are among just a few of the prison outreaches to forgotten men at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution by members of Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, about 17 miles south of Nashville.

Church members exchange letters with inmates like Joe Collins, who is six years into a 17-year sentence and coordinates the pen pal program inside Riverbend. "I talked to a guy who hadn’t had a visit in over 16 years," Collins said. "Now he gets regular cards, and his pen pal and her husband come out every few months and visit him. His quality of life has gone through the roof."

Inmate Bill Pelfry looks forward to letters from the outside and the occasional visit. "Most of us don’t like ourself. We need someone to instill some kind of love in us. … Give us some hope," said Pelfry, whose pen pal became his first visitor in 27 years.

Dennis Rogers says writing to Pelfry has been therapeutic for both Pelfry and himself—helping Rogers through a recent divorce. "I was sort of in a pity party when I started the letter, but I realized how this man would give anything he had to be doing what I was doing and be free," Rogers said.

Jerry Nail feels closest to God when ministering to prisoners behind bars.
A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.

The pen pal program grew out of an outreach started by Jerry Nail, 65, a real estate agent and member of Christ UMC who has been involved in prison ministry for nearly eight years.

Nail visits Riverbend at least two days a week and says he actually feels closest to God when ministering to inmates inside prison walls.

The prison is a comfortable place for Nail now, but it wasn't years ago when Nail's only passion was Disciple Bible Study. The curriculum developed by United Methodist Publishing House is designed for small groups and emphasizes not only Scriptural study and prayer but putting faith into action.

Nail had been an active Disciple student for several years when a former pastor mentioned that the study was being taught and learned enthusiastically in jails in North Carolina. Nail remembers that day clearly and a subsequent calling from God. "A voice said, 'That’s where I want you. I want you in prison.' It was almost a 'Who, me?' reaction."

Lonely existence

Like most people, Nail was surprised to learn that hundreds of men and women behind bars in his own community have little family support and long for contact with the outside world.

Today, however, many are interacting on a spiritual level with members of Nail's home congregation. They run weekly Bible studies at Riverbend and invite inmates of all faiths to participate.

In addition to Bible study, volunteer clergy offer regular Wednesday morning Communion and Sunday morning worship services. More than a dozen Riverbend residents have joined Christ church, and many tithe their meager wages—some earning as little as 17 cents an hour. "Once a month we get a bunch of state checks. They’re from 3 to 8 dollars," said Nail. "It’s not something you’re gonna run the church with except the spirit behind it would run any church."

Church member John Slaughter leads inmates in study of Scripture.
A UMNS video image.

The relationships don’t end when a prisoner is released. Church members partner with newly released inmates to help them find housing, employment and other basic necessities. The church invests $1,000 per ex-con to assure a successful re-entry into society.

Approximately 70 percent of prisoners eventually find themselves incarcerated again, but the prison ministry offers a life-changing opportunity for inmates, according to Riverbend Warden Ricky Bell. "They were on the street. Unless they had family, inmates just didn’t have any help," Bell said.

After spending 17 years in prison, Marcus Hamilton says he's grateful to church members for providing an instant support system after his release. "It’s just so many things you have to do that normal, everyday people already have … like a driver’s license, ID, insurance, finding themselves a job."

The ministry is just as committed, though, to helping inmates who will never leave Riverbend. "There's one man there that has over 250 years," Nail said. "Obviously, he’s not gonna be out. But he is a member of the church, and he does the same things that members of our church on the outside do."

Nail emphasizes that God is a god of forgiveness and likes to echo the saying of a prison chaplain about the men served by the ministry. "They made some extremely poor choices," he acknowledged, "but it would be terrible to be judged by the worst thing you ever did in your life for the rest of your life."

*Marigza is a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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