Category Archives: Corrections

I went to church in a prison: Part 2

The Salvation Army Midland Division’s communications department recently visited Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, Ill., in an effort to learn more about the Army’s services offered to prisoners. This is the second post in a two-part series about what they learned from their experience. This post is written by Ashley Kuenstler, Content Specialist for The Salvation Army and Cardinals fan extraordinaire. Part One can be found here.

Nathaniel knew his wife was cheating on him. He had been slamming drink after drink at a local bar when a friend called to tell him there was a man at his house who shouldn’t be there.

“We were technically separated, but I still had keys to the house. In my eyes, the only choice I had was to go to that house and take care of the situation,” he said. “The devil had me in his grips and I had no idea.”

Nathaniel arrived at the house to find neither his wife or a mysterious man. But after listening to her voicemails and confirming his friend’s allegations, Nathaniel was filled with a rage that sequestered any kind of normal thought process. He lit a piece of paper on fire, threw it on her bed, and left the house.

“I had no idea that my stepson was asleep inside,” Nathaniel said. “He died in that fire, and it’s my fault. It was the worst day of my life. I’ve spent 11 years in prison with that on my mind all day, every day.”

He paused for a moment and looked down to his folded hands. My mind could not physically grapple with what Nathaniel must endure to his mind and his spirit on a daily basis. I wanted to say something comforting to ease the pain I saw in his face, but the only thing my body could manage was a single tear that raced down my left cheek. My heart broke for him and it broke for the loss of his stepson. But for Nathaniel, this is what it took for him to change his life.

“Thanks to God, I’m not the same person anymore,” he said. “I’ve been surrounded by good people and I’ve been introduced to the word of God. I learned how to be a man and I’m blessed to be able to turn this situation into a chance to help others, to the be the kind of man others can look up to.”

Major Jack Holloway standing in front of Graham Correctional Facility in Hillsboro, IL

Major Jack Holloway standing in front of Graham Correctional Facility in Hillsboro, IL

Major Jack Holloway – The Salvation Army’s Correctional Services Secretary – said seeing this kind of transformation is what continually inspires him while working in the Army’s prison ministry.

“It’s an often forgotten population that I don’t want us to forget,” Major Holloway said. “I continually meet men who have no sense of value or future and I’m able to tell them, ‘Yes, you do have great value and purpose.’ And then I get to prove it to them through the word of God.”
Major Holloway has spent the last three years travelling to prisons throughout Missouri and Illinois, finding placement for inmates upon their release, helping them find employment, ministering to them, and getting to know them on a personal level.

“I meet with them on a one-on-one basis as often as I can to just talk,” Major Holloway said. “We talk about how their day is going, what’s weighing on their heart, and how God can help to fix it. They know what they did was wrong, and they realize there is a penalty for that action. They dream of a better life and a chance to start over, to make their lives worth something, and we are there to help them realize that dream.”

For Ollie – a former gang member imprisoned for murdering a man and trying to kill a woman – his faith and trust in The Salvation Army and its message was solidified when he realized Major Holloway knew his name.

“One day, I covered up my nametag to see if he would know my name. He knew it without missing a beat,” Ollie said. “And then it just hit me: I didn’t need the gang life or anything associated with it to be memorable. I just had to be a good and righteous man and lead by example.”

For Major Hollway – seeing the transformation firsthand is something that never fails to strike a chord.

“One of my most memorable experiences in the prison ministry was several months ago while I was giving a sermon on Sunday morning,” he said. “I was reading scripture and compared the men to clay and God to a potter. I said, ‘A potter’s clay is often marred and scarred and full of imperfections, but the potter will never throw his clay away. And as I looked out over the men in the congregation, I could just see it hit 20 of them right between the eyes. I saw it in their faces and I could see that transformation take place instantaneously. It struck such a chord with me and it’s something I’ll never forget.”

The Salvation Army offers volunteer opportunities in the prison system for people interested in working with inmates and furthering their transformation. In order to keep in accordance with prison regulations, the approval process can be long and complicated, but definitely rewarding. Volunteers can assist in fatherhood classes, general education, spiritual guidance, and more.

“There are people who volunteer their time and work with us on a regular basis,” Ollie said. “I’d never seen a man do anything for free – and they are doing that for me of all people? That changed my heart.

“To so many people, we are scum. We are not worth a second glance, we’re not worth anything at all,” Nathaniel said. “But The Salvation Army and Major Holloway realize that’s not true. God knows that’s not true.

“I am forever changed from this experience and have given my life to God. And when He allows me to leave this place, he will have me until it’s time for me to come home to Him.”

To learn more about The Salvation Army’s prison ministry or how you can volunteer, please visit http://www.stlsalvationarmy.org.

I went to church in a prison: Part 1

The Salvation Army Midland Division’s communications department recently visited Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, Ill., in an effort to learn more about the Army’s services offered to prisoners. This is the first post in a two-part series about what they learned from their experience. This post is written by Ashley Kuenstler, Content Specialist at The Salvation Army and Cardinals fan extraordinaire. 

The barbed-wire fences of Graham Correctional Facility in Hillsboro, IL; one of the prisons where The Salvation Army ministers to on a regular basis.

The barbed-wire fences of Graham Correctional Facility in Hillsboro, IL; one of the prisons where The Salvation Army ministers to on a regular basis.

I visited a state prison for the first time Sunday, and I have to say, watching The Shawshank Redemption a million times was no help in preparing me for what I would experience while there.

I admit I was more than a little apprehensive as I approached Graham Correctional Center. The drive from my St. Louis office to the Hillsboro, Ill., facility provided more than enough time for my naïve sensibilities to play out every possible negative scenario. I was half-heartedly expecting to be led down a hallway of prison cells, dodging derogatory comments left and right. I expected an overall feeling of fear and a constantly erratic heartbeat. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone; I had two coworkers in tow who seemed pretty confident and self-assured that everything would be just fine.

When I entered the prison’s chapel, I was greeted by three men dressed in blue. One was incarcerated for burning his wife’s house down – not knowing his stepson was asleep inside; another for inciting an altercation with police; and a third for killing a man and attempting to kill a woman. According to every example Hollywood has given me, I should have been “shaking in my boots” to be in their presence. But there wasn’t an ounce of fear in my bones.

Sitting just 10 feet from me and unrestrained, the inmates were kind, respectful, and above all – remorseful. They had all resigned the arrogant and selfish mentalities that landed them in prison and replaced them with a strong sense of empathy, humility, and faith.

After hearing their stories (which I’ll share in a subsequent blog post later next week), my colleagues and I were led to the area of the chapel where Sunday worship took place. We sat quietly in the back of the room, among more than 200 prisoners. The praise band started to play and the prisoners filled the room with song. The room resembled a church sanctuary; the voices were jubilant, bibles were in every hand, and everyone’s feet were keeping the beat – including those of my coworkers. Men had their hands raised, eyes closed, and sang as if their lives depended on it; and for some of them, maybe that was true. If God hadn’t heard them before, he was certainly hearing them in that moment.

I looked out across the room and saw the weathered faces of men who had seen and endured enough hardship to embed permanent creases across their brow. And, surprisingly, the fear I had struggled with leading up to this visit was quickly replaced with my own humility.

These men were not monsters like Hollywood led me to believe. They were men who made life-altering mistakes for whatever reason and were desperate for forgiveness, to turn their misguided lives over to someone who could show them how to be the type of men mothers envision their sons to be.

At the end of the service, Major Jack Holloway – The Salvation Army’s Correctional Services Secretary – asked for any man being released that week to come forward for prayer. Two men walked confidently to the front of the room and were later joined by a third.

“Are you going home, too?” Major Holloway asked the third man.

“No,” he answered. “I just wanted to stand beside my brother and pray with him.”

And as the prisoners prayed together, it was obvious they were not in that chapel for something to do to pass the time. They were there because they knew that’s where they belonged, that this was the way to find the path to redemption they were so desperately searching for.

No one said a single mean-spirited comment to me while I was there. I wasn’t on the receiving end of any cross looks and I didn’t get shanked. But I was introduced to a population served by The Salvation Army that not many people know about. These men have lost everything and they realize it’s a consequence of their actions. But they’re ready to try again. And I can’t express how proud I am to be part of an organization that not only recognizes them, but does everything in its power to ensure they succeed this time around.

Even The Shawshank Redemption had a happy ending. And I have no doubt these men have one in their future, too.

To support our efforts to reach out to prisoners or to support any of our other programs, please donate here. And thank you.

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