Corcoran State Prison
The Carnies, accompanied by the Spectrum Band were invited to the Corcoran State Prison (CSP) over the Veteran’s Day weekend to participate on a program which was an experiment by the prison officials attempting to bring inmates of different ethnic backgrounds together for the purpose of worship. It is common practice for inmates to separate into groups according to race, religion, nonreligious, or gang affiliations. The warden of CSP agreed to allow our group, along with several pastors from the Los Angeles area to provide worship services for the inmates who wanted to participate. In order for an inmate to receive approval to attend this event, they must have participated regularly in Bible studies or worship services at the prison. This requirement was an attempt to ensure that only those serious about having a relationship with God would be attending our services; this was also a way to prevent any disturbances.The event started on Friday, a pastor spoke that afternoon, our group presented the music and speaking on Saturday,on Sunday our group lead worship, and one of the pastors delivered the message.
From the moment I was contacted regarding this event, I was clear that our group should be part of this evangelistic effort. The Carnies were recommended to the organizers of this event as a suitable group to assist the prison in achieving its objective; they were specifically looking for a diverse group which they felt could have success in influencing the inmates to interact with each other. In the prison community it’s not acceptable for inmates of different races to associate with one another; to do so could mean harm to the individuals. A great deal was riding on the success of this event’s ability to encourage inmates to intermingle and socialize together, this would determine if there would be future programs like this one scheduled. Thus the reason this event was considered an experiment! The prison officials were hopeful that by creating a situation which encourages the inmates to associate with those different from themselves, it would eventually cut down on the amount of crime occurring between the varying groups.
Because the contact information for the Carnies was obsolete, some research had to be done to reach me; I was finally located through my website. After having a conversation about the purpose and objective for this event, I was certain our group was the perfect selection. It had been literally years since I was involved in prison ministry, however I knew God was nudging me in this direction. After speaking with the coordinator of this event at length, she made it clear that she hoped our group would agree to join her team with this effort; she expressed she sensed our group was much more than optics when it came to diversity, she felt our passion, love, and commitment to bridging this divide. Just as she was able to sense our sincerity, she said the inmates can tell immediately whether you’re sincere or not.
The next step was to get our group cleared by the State of California for prison ministry. Since we had started the process for clearance more than eight weeks before the scheduled program, we were confident we would have ample time to compete the process. In one week’s time the necessary paper work had been received by the proper authorities at the prison. We were told it would take about three to four weeks for clearance. My contact followed up weekly to see where we were in the process. Things looked great, then we ran into a snag, the warden who initially approved the program quit, a new warden was appointed. It went downhill rapidly after that. Paper work was sent back because the date was on the wrong line, then other paper work was not approved because a signature was signed in the wrong spot. To make matters worse, the mistakes were not sent back at the same time, thus affecting our time line for getting the paper work completed and approved in time for the event. It was clear Satan was busy attempting to keep our group from taking part in this event. As this is occurring, I received news that the event may be cancelled because there had been trouble at the prison and the entire facility was on lock down. The officials were not certain that they could keep our group safe.
We finally were given the green light that the program could go on as planned, however with some significant changes. Originally, it was planned that we could present the concert in the yard where the inmates are housed. Because the inmates had been recently off lockdown, it was determined that for our safety, we were not allowed to present the services in the yard with the inmates, but we had to set up behind a barbed wire fence.
Before I go any further, I’d like to share a few of the feelings from some of our group regarding our ministering at CSP; also how we prepared ourselves for this mission. Because Carole, Deb, and I had done prison ministry previously at both San Quinten, and Soledad Prisons, I knew their positions and passion for this kind of ministry. Because I’m aware that prison ministry is not for everyone, I felt it important to know what the other members of the group were feeling about this opportunity. I thank God that I work with a group that are comfortable enough with one another to share their truest feelings and not follow the majority. With that being said, two individuals expressed that they were uncomfortable about going into one of the most violent prisons in California, they felt stress and fear. We talked about it, validated their emotions, and we prayed. At no time did they express not wanting to minister, they were just expressing how they were feeling. After we ministered on Saturday, we went out to dinner as a group and talked about the experience of that day. The question was asked
of those two individuals specifically, how they felt now that they had successfully ministered to the inmates? This is God transforming hearts, lives, and perceptions “at its best!” One of the individuals said that they saw the humanity in those men, and did not focus on the fact that they had committed a crime. They felt blessed themselves while being a blessing. The other said that although their crimes where horrific, they were still human and children of God. Prison ministry, in order to be effective must be done with no judgment or bias, there must be only one focus, to be an instrument for saving souls for Christ. Without sounding too simplistic, my desire to be used in saving souls for Christ is greater than my fears.
Needless to say, Sunday was the better day for our group because we were free of any inhibitions regarding our mission to uplift those inmates to Christ. Recap of Saturday, from the beginning it was a challenge just getting into the prison, as well as getting out. Because we were allowed to take in equipment, which I understand is unheard of, every piece of equipment from an extension cord to piano had to be itemized. When I say every piece, I mean every piece. It didn’t help that the individual responsible for checking our inventory didn’t know anything about musical equipment, which made for a long and tedious check. When it was all said and done, it took about two hours to be finally checked in. Then there was the issue with what one of the members of the group was wearing, fatigues! We were given a list of what we could and could not wear, fatigues were not on the list. The individual was cleared at the first check point but held up at the next. The higher ranking guard said it would be acceptable, so we were
cleared. However, the officer who didn’t think that the pants were acceptable was the same officer who checked us out, and as a result, it took us a very long time to be checked out. Saturday’s program was great. The music was a hit with the inmates, they praised God and seemed to enjoy themselves, and Carole also spoke.
Sunday was an entirely different experience, it was as if we were at a totally different institution. For starters, when we were offloading our equipment on Saturday we were on our own, not one guard lifted a finger to assist us. However on Sunday, we had about six guards assisting us. Saturday we were told that we could not have any of our vehicles left in the area while we offloaded our equipment. On Sunday, we were told we could literally drive the vehicle with the equipment into the prison area where we were singing. The guards were joking and assisting our group with whatever would make our experience pleasant. That was a far cry from the previous day. And remember the fence we were instructed to stay behind, the guards allowed those of us who wanted, to go inside the yard and share time with the inmates. Sunday morning, there were 23 baptisms and about 15 personal professions of faith by some of the inmates. In case you are wondering as we were, how were they going to accomplish baptisms? A troth was filled with water and the candidates were baptized in it, all 23. Praise God! That was an awe striking moment. These men were putting themselves at risk for the decision they had just made for Christ. They were men from different backgrounds and gangs coming together for one common cause, Jesus! For just that moment in time, for those men to be free in Christ brought many in our group to tears, including us guys. One of the inmates brought everyone back to reality by posing the question to those who had just been baptized, “what are you going to do when you are challenged about who you are going to serve?” If you are threatened to be harmed or they threaten to harm your brother, are you going to still choose Jesus? And all those who were baptized shouted “yes!” For us, we knew we had done what was easy, shared our faith; but we instinctively knew that they had the most difficult challenge, to live for Jesus in a place of evil. Our group covered them with our love and prayers! May God protect, guide, and cover you with His unfailing love and grace.
What an intense, at times overwhelming experience. Now it was time to leave, and what mixed emotions. One of my memorable take away moments was when the guard in charge came to me and said “it was a pleasure having your group here this weekend.” If you only knew how you made our jobs easier this weekend. Normally we have so many incidents of violence, but there was not one. Your music calmed the inmates, men (groups) who never associate together were getting along. We witnessed Black, White, and Latinos singing, praying, reading their Bibles together. What I must say, is that although it was extremely hot with no trees to shade those guys, it should have been cause for short tempers however, they all got along. Many of the guys expressed their gratitude for us coming, they were genuinely grateful. One inmate told us that he had been there for 17 years and that they had never had a group come in with instruments.
It was apparent that God had not only worked on the hearts of the inmates, but He had also worked on the hearts of many of the guards. On Sunday, our time in checking out was significantly shorter. As I have had time to reflect on the entire experience, I’m thankful for the service of the guards at all prisons. It can’t be easy, we come in for a short time, with one objective to share the love of Jesus. They are there daily and see what most of us can’t even imagine. As I attempt to put into perspective what getting involved with prison ministry means to me and our group, I do not want to forget those who were harmed by any of these inmates, our love and prayers are with you and your families. I pray you understand I am following our commission from God, “when I was in prison you visited me;” and for the inmates, man can incarcerate you, but God is your liberation, your freedom!
9:30 Worship Pastor
First Baptist Church of Elk Grove
8939 East Stockton Blvd.
Elk Grove, Ca. 95624