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Church members can ‘be Jesus’ to kids in jail through program

 


Church members can ‘be Jesus’ to kids in jail through program

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Volunteers offer life skills classes and a worship service at the McCracken Juvenile Detention Center.
Nov. 4, 2004

By Cathy Farmer*

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UMNS) — Volunteering to teach life skills and lead worship services in a juvenile detention facility isn’t exactly what Mike Gentry had planned for his life.

One evening a few years ago, Gentry was sitting in his easy chair, enjoying a beer and contemplating his plans for early retirement, when God decided to introduce a few changes.

"My wife came home and announced that she was pregnant," he says. "I just laughed. I had it all worked out. But it was my plan, not God’s plan, and God had other ideas. God moves you where he wants you to be."

Before long, the young father and member of Broadway United Methodist Church in Paducah, Ky., found himself teaching Sunday school to the church’s senior high class. Then, in 2000, Gentry and 39 volunteers from various churches met to talk about leading a Wednesday night Bible study for the young people incarcerated in the McCracken Regional Juvenile Detention Center.

"We were kind of gung-ho about the idea of teaching the Bible to the kids on Wednesdays," Gentry says. "Then they (center officials) said we couldn’t do it because it would be mandatory on Wednesdays and you can’t make a religion class mandatory."

The 40 volunteers suddenly dwindled to 12. "I remember that clearly," Gentry says.

But they had a backup plan. Ricky Harris, youth services program supervisor, was open to the idea of teaching the kids life skills on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and holding a voluntary worship service on Sundays. It would be called the Juvenile Volunteer Service program.

Elton Priddy, a member of Maxon Disciples of Christ Church in West Paducah, is one of the 12 volunteers who stuck it out.

"All the subjects we teach to the kids on Tuesdays and Thursdays are in the Scriptures, in the parables," Priddy says. "Without referring to the Bible, we teach self-discipline, positive attitude, choices and consequences, anger management, empathy, wisdom and integrity."

Both Priddy and Gentry say the young people are quite capable of relating the values taught in the life skills classes to the Sunday worship time.

"I taught self-discipline one Thursday night," Gentry says, "and one kid asked me how that squared with what I’d taught them that Sunday. They were putting two and two together.

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Former inmate Blake Morrow credits the class with helping him turn his life around.
"I admit I was a little skeptical at first," he says. "I wanted to teach out of the Bible just like everyone else. But in Matthew 25, it says, ‘I was in prison and you visited me,’ not ‘you came to preach to me.’ We may not be able to say ‘Jesus’ to the kids on Tuesday and Thursday, but we can be him."

Harris, an 11-year veteran at the center, says the Juvenile Volunteer Service program is wonderful.

"It benefits the community, and it’s beneficial for the youth. You can see tangible results," he says. "The kids almost change before your eyes — it’s almost that dramatic."

Harris adds that he occasionally sees some of the residents in the community after their release and that they’ve thanked him for the classes.

One beneficiary of the program is Blake Morrow. He soaked in a message of forgiveness and responsible living while serving time for drug charges.

"I guess (after) constantly putting that in my head … the light clicked on," he says. He realized it wasn’t too late to feel good about himself. Now he has a job, is back in church and thinking about college.

Beverly Freeman says she’s seen changes during the two and a half years that she’s been a youth worker at the center.

"The kids ask questions," she says. "Sometimes the classes run over time because they’re full of questions related to the lesson. And they ask for Bibles.

"If we did away with the life skills class, I don’t know what they would do, they look forward to it so."

"You know, the human part of us likes to see results, see that we’re making progress," Priddy says. "I got that way after we’d been teaching the class about three or four months. That’s when one of the young men gave himself to Christ. He just yelled it out. Asked for forgiveness. ... It’s happened again and again. God will let you know."

In this, the third year of the program, nine other Paducah-area churches are involved: Broadway United Methodist, Trinity United Methodist, Arcadia United Methodist, Harrison Street Baptist, First Baptist Church of Lone Oak, Ky., Maxon Disciples of Christ, Gospel Mission of Reidland, Ky., First Missionary Baptist of Benton, Ky., and the nondenominational Heartland Worship Center.

"The number of volunteers varies," Gentry says, ‘but there are generally anywhere from one to four from each church. We could definitely use more. If we had more, they would likely give us more time with the kids."

Being able to volunteer at the center is a blessing, Priddy says. "For us to be able to do this, even if we had to do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is the greatest blessing we could ever receive. We’re allowed to share our love for God and our love for each other.

"At one time, I was right where these kids are today — locked up," he continues. "Not for long, but long enough to know that I didn’t want to be there. God got my attention, and he got it good. It’s special to the kids when I testify to my life change."

Gentry chimes in that his work at the center and in his church is where God wants him to be.

"And I couldn’t do it without my wife Debbie," he says. "She’s my prayer warrior. She’s home right now doing homework, watching her mother who has Alzheimer’s, and running her real estate appraisal business.

"I won’t be retiring early, like I planned," he says with a laugh. "I’ll probably never retire, never quit working. God doesn’t let a guy sit around."

*Farmer is the editor of The Memphis Conference United Methodist Reporter.

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

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