Inmates find faith behind bars
Dressed in orange jumpsuits, some with shackles on their wrists and ankles, 30 inmates gave their lives to God and were baptized in jail earlier this month.
For three nights, the razor wire fence at the Haywood County Detention Center couldn’t contain the singing, clapping and shouts of joy as 84 inmates gathered in worship at a tent revival, perhaps the first of its kind in the state.
The powerful event was planned by the Hands Up Recovery and Transformation Foundation, an organization that was formed about three months ago by a group of local people involved in prison ministry.
Jim Haynes, a member of Antioch Baptist Church, has been part of jail ministry for 19 years, sharing the word of God with inmates every week. He is also now a founding member of the Hands Up foundation.
Since the foundation came together, pastors from different churches across the county have volunteered to preach at church services held in the jail library and the annex every Sunday morning. After seeing several inmates give their lives to Christ during the church services, the foundation decided to take their mission to the next level by organizing a tent revival.
Haynes wasn’t sure how receptive the inmates would be to the idea, but he was blown away by the result.
“We had no idea where it was going to go, but the Lord blessed us,” he said. “I apologize to the Lord for thinking so small. He outdid anything I could have ever imagined.”
North Hazelwood Baptist Church, Faith Community Church, Calvary Road Baptist Church and Antioch Baptist Church were the key churches involved in the revival.
From the first moments of singing and worship, Haynes said the feeling under the tent which was set up in a grassy area outside the jail was “electric.”
Of the 115 inmates at the time, 84 decided to attend the revival. Only those who were a flight risk were not allowed to leave their cells.
Even inmates that were being held in B-Pod, the space reserved in the jail for those charged with more serious offenses, were allowed to attend. With shackles binding their wrists and ankles, several of the men were baptized.
On the first night, the jail ran out of dry prison uniforms after baptizing 11 men and women. Nineteen more came forward the next night.
For Lawrence Derby, who goes by “Derb,” the tent revival provided new meaning in a life riddled with crime. Over the past 19 years, the 39-year-old has been in and out of jail 20 times for drug charges and petty crimes.
“Every time I left (jail) I always stood at the door trying to figure out how to stay out of that situation,” he said.
Life’s circumstances always drew him back to the same old habits, landing him right back behind bars. But during his most recent stint in jail, he decided to attend the tent revival.
“I’m proud to say it was life changing. Not a lot of things have stuck with me in life, but this stuck with me,” he said.
For the first time, the pastor’s sermon about forming a relationship with God finally made sense to him. Seeing orange jumpsuits all around him and knowing that there was still hope was a turning point for Derby.
“The pastor and the sheriff are saying they love you and God loves you despite where we were sitting,” Derby said.
The Rev. Nick Honerkamp, pastor at New Covenant Church, tag teamed a sermon with the Rev. Chip Plemmons the first night followed by the Rev. Steve Taylor, pastor of Antioch Baptist and then the Rev. John Swanger, pastor of Calvary Road Baptist.
“It was an unbelievable honor to minister, serve and to care for those men and women. It was one of the greatest privileges I’ve ever had,” Honerkamp said.
While preaching under the tent that night, he watched many of the inmates cry and shout, unable to control their emotions.
“I’m used to the church world, which can sometimes be a little sterile. But there it was raw emotion, there was genuine hope and incredible support for one another. They cheered when the other inmates were baptized,” he said.
Taylor, who preached the second night, said the revival offered inmates a chance to worship just like anyone else.
“There is obviously a spiritual hunger in the prison and they are looking and longing for hope. When they lose hope that there is a different lifestyle possible for them it doesn’t bode well for their future,” Taylor said.
Since the revival, the atmosphere of the entire jail has changed, said Derby.
“The fighting has stopped. It’s just full of joy now. People don’t look at this as jail anymore. They see it as a second chance,” he said.
When he leaves jail this time, Derby is full of the hope and direction he has always searched for but never known before.
“I’ve tried my way, I’ve tried other people’s way and I’ve tried rehab, but I believe now that God’s way is the only way,” Derby said. “I want to be a good father to my five kids, minister to other people and go to church.”
Beyond the revival
Haynes said he knows that bringing inmates to God is only part of the Christian mission, however. Giving them resources to prevent them from ending back up in jail is another important goal of the foundation.
“We’ve seen so many people that are on what I call the merry-go-round. They go out one door and come back in another one. I do believe that it’s a responsibility of the Christian community and of our churches to help these people,” Haynes said.
Rather than monetary help, Haynes believes inmates need someone to mentor them once they leave jail.
“When they get out, if they don’t get somebody to walk beside them, next thing you know they’re hanging with the same people they used to hang with and they end up right back in this place,” he said.
That’s part of the reason Hands Up was formed. The title “Hands Up” comes from the idea of giving a hand up instead of a hand out for help. But it also has another meaning.
“We believe in the Christian life that putting your hands up also shows a sign of total surrender,” Haynes said.
Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher has been supportive of jail ministry and even had a hand in forming the Hands Up foundation as a way to reach out to inmates in the best way he knows, through Christian love.
He had only been working as sheriff for two weeks when he spoke with two young men who had just been released from jail. He asked them about their plans for the future and was saddened by what he heard.
“They had nowhere to go, they had no direction, no kind of a future. They didn’t even know what they were going to eat for dinner,” he said.
At that moment, the sheriff realized that part of his job needed to be helping inmates get back on their feet and find a way of life outside of crime.
Christopher even took time to speak to the inmates at the revival.
"One of the things that I talk to them about is the fact that we do not want to see them back in here. We want to see them fully recovered and transitioned from what they have been to what we fully believe that they can be. We're interested in seeing people's lives changed," he said.
Aside from allowing more ministry activity at the jail, such as the church services and the tent revival, Christopher is also planning a partnership with Haywood Community College and Lifeworks to offer skill building classes to inmates while in jail.
Haynes said the foundation’s next goal is to procure funding and a facility to create a halfway house for inmates, offering them a place to go once they are released from jail. He also hopes to find more people interested in becoming mentors for inmates
Those who wish to become involved in the Hands Up foundation can call Haynes at 828-734-9346.