Nov. 4, 2004
Volunteers offer life skills classes and a worship service at the McCracken Juvenile Detention Center.
By Cathy Farmer*
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
"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."
Former inmate Blake Morrow credits the class with helping him turn his life around.
Harris, an 11-year veteran at the center, says the Juvenile Volunteer Service program is wonderful.
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."
adds that he occasionally sees some of the residents in the community
after their release and that they’ve thanked him for the classes.
beneficiary of the program is Blake Morrow. He soaked in a message of
forgiveness and responsible living while serving time for drug charges.
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.
kids ask questions," she says. "Sometimes the classes run over time
because they’re full of questions related to the lesson. And they ask
"If we did away with the life skills class, I don’t know what they would do, they look forward to it so."
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
*Farmer is the editor of The Memphis Conference United Methodist Reporter.
News media contact: Fran Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org