Posted on 20 December 2014.
“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
“I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
“I was a stranger and you invited me in,
“I needed clothes and you clothed me,
“I was sick and you looked after me,
“I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
(Matthew 25: 35-36, NIV)
Wise County Jail Chaplain Marilyn Featherstone said she thinks about that passage a lot.
“That’s the bottom line,” she said. “That is Christianity, in my opinion.”
FAITH BEHIND BARS – The Wise County Jail isn’t a church, but Bibles and Bible study are available for inmates who wish to use their time behind bars to repent, reflect and prepare for a new life once they’re back outside. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty
She and a roster of volunteers visit those in jail in Wise County. They do their best to bring faith behind the bars, helping the 180 or so inmates use their sentences as a time to repent, reflect and study – get to know God and lay the foundation for a new life when they get out.
It was a conviction that put them there – often on the testimony of witnesses.
Inside the walls, some experience a different kind of conviction, a different sort of witness. Each volunteer brings a testimony that springs from his or her own life.
The men and women in jail took some wrong turns to get there. Those who minister have traveled the same roads, taken some of the same turns.
Featherstone, a former missionary in Nigeria and Jamaica, worked in law enforcement for years as a secretary to Sheriffs Phil Ryan, then David Walker, and their chief deputies. Her husband, John, was the jail’s chaplain.
“When John died in 1999, the sheriff says, ‘You’ve been doing this all your life. Why don’t you take over?’
“I thought, ‘I can’t do that!’ But I’ve loved it, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
When she retired from the secretarial job four years ago at age 79, Walker asked her to stay on as chaplain. She did. Now she’s a volunteer, there every morning from 8 to 10 a.m.
She will talk, listen, study the Bible or pray with any inmate who requests it. She gives a Bible to everyone who wants one and tries to accommodate each inmate’s wishes to see a minister or practice their faith – whatever it may be.
AGELESS CHAPLAIN – Marilyn Featherstone, who retired after 20 years as secretary to the Wise County sheriff and chief deputy, was asked to stay on as chaplain. She’s available to talk, pray and counsel with inmates every morning. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty
It’s an imperfect system, shackled by laws requiring the segregation of male and female prisoners and maximum, medium and minimum security inmates. Those rules discourage large gatherings of inmates and prevent some of them from getting to “go to church” as often as they would like.
Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons, a lineup of ministers, lay preachers and teachers come to the jail and hold Bible studies, pray and worship with the inmates who want to come.
“They come out from churches all over the county,” Featherstone said. “I know there’s Baptist, the motorcycle people, Trinity. We have so many, I can’t even remember what all churches we have. I don’t really pay any attention to it, to tell you the truth.
“This is non-denominational,” she said. “The longer I live, the more I realize that we’re just all in this together, and we’re all the same. We just do what we can.”
Classes are held for men and women – three or four to more than a dozen at a time. Some inmates may not get to attend more than once or twice a month, and they may not be able to study or visit with a minister of their particular denomination.
“Security is our biggest hangup,” Featherstone said. “I know sometimes people get to feeling like, ‘I’m never going to get to go to church again.’ But it’s surprising the amount of interest in church services.
“Usually, the only complaint will be that they didn’t get to go.”
LOTS OF CHALLENGES
Those who minister in jail know they are fighting an uphill battle.
A STORY TO TELL – Cutting horse trainer Bryan Jackson pulls no punches when he talks to inmates about what God has done in his life. Messenger photo by Bob Buckel
Aside from the majority of inmates who simply aren’t interested, they deal with men and women who bring a multitude of problems to jail with them – problems that will still be there when they get out.
Equipping them for that struggle is something those who minister take seriously.
Bryan Jackson is a cutting-horse trainer who lives near Paradise. He is familiar with those challenges.
“This is the beginning of the changing of the heart, the beginning of the changing of the mind,” he said. “I try to teach them to walk as Christian men, and to understand that when you get out, no one’s going to believe you.
“Everyone’s going to look at you and say, ‘OK, now I want to see you walk the walk.'”
Jackson’s own conversion experience, in 2002, was met with skepticism from his friends and family – those who knew him in his wilder days.
Even after he began to go to churches and give his testimony, one minister told him he was not interested in having him come to speak until he’d seen him live his faith for a few years.
“He said, ‘You’re not going to go speak in front of my people, then turn around and live like you used to live,'” Jackson said.
“I was heartbroken. I was so on fire for the Lord and happy – I was just bubbling with it.”
It won’t be any different for the inmates, he tells them.
“We want them to understand, and be prepared for what’s going to take place,” he said. “Why would we accept them at first, at face value, on their spoken word? Most of them have lied and stolen from their family – walking in truth has not been a part of their life.
“People want to see different, not just hear different.”
‘I BELIEVE MY JOB IS TO BE A SOWER.’
Bryan Jackson’s life changed in a moment, on July 29, 2002. He calls it his “Damascus Road” experience – referencing the conversion of Saul, who became the Apostle Paul, in Acts chapter 9.
“I had family turmoil and a bunch of other things that were going on – a bunch of Jerry Springer stuff,” he said. “I was out between those two oak trees over there, having a hat-throwing-down, cussing fit, jumping up and down and yelling.”
In the next moment, he said, he felt a hand on his back.
“The Lord spoke to me and said ‘Bryan, you’re a child of mine, but it’s time for you to come home to me right now.'” he said. “I said, ‘God, I truthfully don’t deserve your forgiveness or your deliverance.'”
But he vowed to do his best to serve God as long as he lived, and immediately, he said, his heart was changed.
“I went outside fighting the demons of addiction and immorality, and walked back in my house delivered,” he said. “I can’t see it any other way.”
Jackson began speaking, giving his testimony, at every opportunity. He started attending Victory Family Church, met Laura Peck, and she invited him to come speak at the jail. At first he resisted, but she convinced him he was uniquely equipped for that ministry.
“She said the people who are effective are the people who have endured,” he said. “The very first time I went, it changed my life.”
He went in with a lesson all planned out, he said. But when he saw the big, scarred, scary man who came to hear him, a different lesson arose.
“I start to talk, and the Holy Spirit just comes over me and I stop and say, ‘Who’s the first person redeemed by the blood of Christ?’ They didn’t know. I said, ‘I want you to understand, the very first person redeemed – by Christ’s profession, ‘You will be in Paradise with me today’ – was a criminal, who hung on a cross beside Christ. All he said was ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom.'”
Instantly, Jackson said, the man was on his knees, crying that there was a God who could forgive him for what he had done.
“I was placed there for that man, that day,” he said. “I had judged him. I said, ‘Why is he here?’ – and that was the man I was there to see that day.”
Now, Jackson tells his story without hesitation, relating to the men in ways they may not have expected. He tells them how God has restored the life that Satan had destroyed, and he tells them of God’s infinite patience and love for his children.
“I believe my job is to be a sower,” he said. “One time I was in Stephenville, at a horse show, and I went to church out there in the middle of the country, on a dirt road. One of the guys I had in jail was taking the money.
“He stopped and went right to his preacher and said, ‘That’s the guy! That’s the guy! That’s the guy who changed my life in jail! I knew because of what he’d been through that I could do it.'” Jackson said. “The Lord knew I was needing to see some fruit.
“With that little confirmation that sharing did matter, I’ve been happy ever since,” he said. “I know there’s someone else like him.
“I hope that the ministry in the Wise County Jail is successful. We know if we send God’s word forward that it’s going to perform its deed, no matter what.”
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