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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.

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

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 – 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 click the “Donate Now” button to your left and click “Volunteer your time”.

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