What first drew you to prison chaplaincy?
This is actually kind of a long answer and involves two phases in my life. First I would say that my life prior to coming to Christ drew me in this direction. I had “run ins” with the law myself and experience with addictions and had my own “come to Jesus” moment when I was facing the possibility of doing Federal time when I was 19 years old. I didn’t go to prison but my 2 best friends at that time did. I received grace from the Federal prosecutor because of lesser involvement and this in turn opened my eyes to the fact that Jesus was pursuing me and I was born again November 21, 1991 at 9:00 PM!. I felt called to ministry after this and every place I pastored I volunteered at county Jails and was involved in “street evangelism.” I worked at a Juvenile facility for a year between churches as well. I did this because of my own conversion experience – it wasn’t in a church, it was because people who were part of the church came to me to share the gospel, a biblical model you could say.
This is where part two comes in. I was growing frustrated with Church ministry for many reasons after 10 years of being in it. One of them was my perception that evangelism wasn’t a priority in many members lives. It was frustrating and I felt that my own efforts were met with resistance at times. It seemed to me that I was doing more entertaining, administrative duties, and the like than rescuing, at least to the extent that I was rescued. This growing discontentment led me to reconsider my own life. I took a break from ministry and prayed that God would lead me in the right direction. I am more sure now than I was 12 years ago that the Lord led me in the right direction.
This was somewhat naïve thinking on my part though. I thought I would be able to relate when I started, but I quickly realized I was in over my head and my own experiences paled in comparison to the men I was dealing with. It took being in it (the prison) to realize that it wasn’t my own experience that brought me to this place in my life, it was Jesus and his sovereignty and the fact that He wants all of us to be about rescuing no matter where we have been or where we are in life. I say this to say that what initially drew me is different than what I think now – God drew me to be light to those in darkness as he does to all his disciples.
How long have you been at Leavenworth?
I have been at USP Leavenworth, KS for a little over 5 years. I started at the Federal Correctional Complex at Lompoc, CA (This is a Federal facility that has 3 levels of security). I was there for 2 years 7 months.
What is your weekly routine like there?
I can tell you my responsibilities because being a Chaplain in a Federal prison means the routine changes. First, all employees are correctional workers first. This means that part of my responsibilities are running to emergencies that happen at any part of the facility. This can be a number of things including fights, killings, medical emergencies, deaths, and the like. Second, each Chaplain is responsible for leading Worship Services of his own faith. So each week I preach twice a week and lead bible studies 3 times a week. This is actually the smallest part f our job but the most rewarding. Chaplains are also responsible for managing the religious diet program for the prison. Many religions have specific diet requirements such as Judaism, Islam, and Rastafarianism. we make sure inmates are sincere about the program and that Food Service is running the program properly. Fourth, if inmates want specific items for personal use that are religious in nature they have to do it through us. Fifth, we buy items for congregate use for each group such as altars, books, candles, cauldrons, incense, and herbs. (I know what you’re thinking, how can a Christian supply groups with these items? It’s easier to stomach if you think of this role as a Wal-Mart cashier, we’re just ringing it up, not allowing, approving, or suggesting. These items must be bought and they’d get the items no matter what because the Government says so!) Sixth, one of the harder duties, is that we are involved whenever a death occurs, whether staff or inmate. This includes notifying families of the death of an inmate or vice versa. It is somewhat hard to do because the majority of inmates I have never spoken to before and the deaths that are reported are often times violent in nature. Seventh, we serve as subject matter experts in all matters related to religion within the institution. The institution is like a small city, 2100 inmates. It has a store, work cites, libraries, leisure facilities, gyms, etc. Religion comes up in all of these and we are the ones who determine if an issue is genuine or not. For example, if an officer calls me and asks whether or not rotten fruit is allowed on a small altar in cells, I will tell him yes this is part of the Santeria religion. We facilitate, not perform, inmate weddings. We make sure that there is a broad spectrum of volunteers to help out with all religious groups. This includes recruiting and interviewing. Tenth, Chaplains are involved in any emergency situation (sometimes deployed nationally), whether it involves natural disaster or man made disasters. Our involvement in these types of situations varies but can be counseling, debriefing, or acts of service. We do hospital visits. We do investigative work such as relay of information, reporting suspicious behavior or material, monitor phone calls and emails, shake downs, interviewing inmates involved in criminal activities, and pat downs. Also, we do counseling. This is probably where most of my time is spent and the most stressful, and most rewarding. We counsel inmates who are suicidal, have experienced a death in their families, those who are going through divorce or other family related problems, financial counseling, spiritual crisis, rape victims, and a whole slew of other reasons. Another responsibility, and much less rewarding, but is very time consuming, is answering inmate requests to staff and lawsuits. The DOJ gets about 10,000 lawsuits a year and the majority of those are religiously based from the Bureau of Prisons! Requests to staff can be anything religious in nature such as “Can I talk to you?” or “Can my new religion meet in the chapel” or “Can I have a religious day off?”
We also manage ALL religious holy days and all aspects related to them. This means arranging space, time, food, and volunteers for ANY religious holiday. For instance, Passover is coming up the first week of April. We make sure all people who have requested to participate are in fact Jewish, that they have the necessary food, candles, books, and religious attire. We make sure they are able to take off of work and school. We get volunteers to help out if necessary. We also manage the budget that is allotted to us making sure that it is spent equitably between all 22 religious groups represented at USP Leavenworth.
In addition I am a Nation Wide Subject matter expert, Crisis Support Team Leader, member of Chaplaincy Visioning group, and manager of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Contextualized Leadership Development program at USP Leavenworth.
What are the greatest blessings? Difficulties?
The greatest blessing is seeing lives genuinely changed. Considering the number of inmates lives I am involved in the number is small but it is amazing to watch God take someone who was a drug dealer, murderer, or bank robber and use them to proclaim the gospel and change other men’s lives.
The greatest difficulty is the amount of stress that comes with the job. We are constantly in danger of being attacked, although it happens rarely, it happens. We are expected by inmates to have answers that no one has answers to but God. Some examples – why wont my wife stay with me and can you help me get her back? Or why did I get 50 years in prison? How can I help my wife and kids who are homeless? How can I get my son out of the gang life before he is killed? The stress also comes from the fact that in prison there is a lot of evil, and it by nature affects those who around it. Drugs, pornography, manipulation, violence, and the like are common place in prison life. Mainly stress comes from being “worked” for 8 hours a day 5 days a week. Convicts are good at conning! They will try everything they can to get what they want while incarcerated. Badgering, lying, threatening, and crying to name but a few tactics. This in turn makes people who work in prison somewhat pessimistic and always wonder if all people are trying to con them. It is a mentality that has to be fought on a daily basis.
How might we pray for you and the ministry there?
That God would sustain me to do the work that he has called me to do. I didn’t become a missionary (deployed and endorsed by NAMB) to manage programs but rather to spread the gospel. To see it change lives as it did mine, to show that it offers a second chance to those who repent. There is the opportunity constantly but sometimes one can get caught up in the busy work and call it ministry, I never want to be one of those. Pray that my focus is on Christ and him crucified.
Also – ask me about inmates to pray for, God is truly working in any lives and prayer is the only way that some if them will ever repent and change.