By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times
After going through security and entering prison gates, visitors to the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility near Bessemer, Alabama, were greeted this spring with handshakes from inmates and employees of the facility then escorted to the chapel. As soft music filled the room, about 100 seated inmates prepared for praise and worship.
The visitors were made up of volunteers with Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, as well as family members, former prisoners, a leading advocate for criminal justice reform, and a reporter with The Birmingham Times, all of whom gathered on site for a Hope Event.
The volunteers visit Donaldson and/or other facilities two to three times a week. The Hope Events feature a variety of inspirational speakers and musicians that give prisoners a chance to join the faith community while incarcerated.
The chapel is a large auditorium on the prison grounds with a brown podium that has a cross, Bible scriptures hanging from the ceiling, and stained-glass windows—and on this day the atmosphere had the feel of a Sunday morning church service.
As visitors arrived, they were welcomed to worship by a band consisting of prisoners in place playing the guitar, drums, and piano. While everyone fellowshipped, Jeremy Miller, Alabama field director for Prison Fellowship, began introductions, acknowledging the inmates by name and letting them know he was happy to see them. Miller reminisced about his time serving as chaplain at another facility, St. Clair County Correctional in Alabama, then concluded his introductions with a prayer.
“Hopefully, some of us will leave different than the way [we] came,” said Miller, who asked everyone to stand for praise and worship, while he invited a choir of five prisoners to the front of the chapel to sing “Every Praise” and “There is Power.”
Afterward, there was a standing ovation. Many participants raised their hands and tilted their faces toward the ceiling. Many had smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes. Even some guards participated, while keeping an eye on the surroundings.
“Sense Of Hope”
Miller asked, “What chains can keep us bound?”
Several inmates yelled, “Forgiveness,” “You,” “Depression,” “The needle,” “Addiction,” “Anger,” and more.
Miller then said, “I hope this is a sense of hope. I want you all to leave here with hope,” after which he encouraged inmates to “bring those chains to the altar.”
Following the altar call, Miller asked Charles Gearhart, a volunteer with Prison Fellowship, to come to the front of the chapel. In the center of the floor, Gearhart chanted, “Real men,” to which the inmates responded, “Love God.”
Gearhart said that he prayed about joining Prison Fellowship and “saw the spirit of God move.”
While standing before the inmates, he shared that prior to coming to the correctional facility that morning, he went to the doctor with his wife, who had been having bone marrow issues. During the visit, her doctor said he didn’t see anything, and she was perfectly fine, which led to praise all over the chapel. The purpose of the speech was to give the prisoners hope and help them understand that their situations and circumstances can turn around, he said.
Gearhart brought a prisoner to the front and said, “Our motto here is, ‘I see you. I hear you. I value you.’”
Inmates and volunteers stood to their feet and repeated the motto several times.
Miller then asked, “How would that motto change prison culture? I challenge you to say that to God.”
An inmate came to the front, grabbed a microphone, and said to the visitors, “I want to thank you all for coming. Having you here means so much to many of us, and it gives us hope.”
“Rest In The Father”
Miller introduced guest singer Stephen Stanley, a musician from Mansfield, Georgia, who started playing the guitar at age 9 and whose songs currently can be heard on Christian Radio. He performed his hits “No Hopeless Soul,” “Rest in the Father,” and “I’ll Carry You.” Prisoners and volunteers stood to praise and worship, many with their hands lifted and eyes looking toward the ceiling.
Stanley said his song “No Hopeless Soul” is based on a time that he felt hopeless. He then told the audience that some people want to fix themselves or their situations before going to Jesus, but, he added, “Jesus said, ‘Come to me as you are.’”
He then let the inmates know that they can find rest in God if they lay their worries down and proceeded to perform “Rest in the Father.”
To end his praise and worship, Stanley asked the inmate choir to join him with to sing “Amazing Grace” and “Stand by Me.”
One inmate said, “This is a clapping song about brotherhood. Let’s be brothers.”
After the praise and worship, Miller introduced the guest speaker, Eric Buchannon, who had been incarcerated at the St. Clair County Correctional Facility. In 2008, he had been sentenced to life and 10 years for drug trafficking. Buchannon met Miller during his incarceration and would often tell him, “I’m going home.”
In 2018, Buchannon “went home.” He was released after writing a letter to the parole board and receiving a response within 30 days and speaks at several churches and events. He is currently an evangelist and motivational speaker, as well as head coach of the mentors for Heroes in the Hood, a program that works with system-involved youth ages 13 to 17 to mentor them over a three-year period, instilling in them work ethics and a sense of community pride.
“I didn’t just get out,” he said. “I got out and got busy.”
As the nearly two-hour program came to a close with another altar call and inmate testimony, Buchannon spoke about how he walked through prison daily visualizing himself being free and experiencing life on the other side: “I would tell myself, ‘I’m getting out of here. I see myself walking through Walmart. I’m buying my house.”
Buchannon scanned the audience and said, “This is a Hope Event, and I’m trying to bring you hope. I don’t care what the papers, [the court documents], say. What does the book, [The Bible], say?”
He reminded the audience, “God will open doors that nobody can close.”
For more, visit www.prisonfellowship.org.