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, and it is written by Content Specialist Ashley Kuenstler.

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.

Photo: Salvation Army Midland Division

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.