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Of Convicts and Conviction

Prison chaplain Sidonie Hall never expected her ministry to be easy, but she almost walked away—until God used an inmate’s letter to remind her of the reason for her calling.

by Sandy Feit

 

It doesn’t seem humanly possible. Chaplain Sidonie Hall works at a corrections facility where last year, worship services were held six nights a week; between 250 and 300 prisoners were regular attendees; 92 baptisms took place; and 1,500 inmates each received a Christmas bag containing a T-shirt, socks, shower shoes, toiletries, and food items. And all this—not to mention counseling, teaching, or stocking a library and pantry—with an annual budget of $287.

Hall meets me in Georgia’s Central State Prison and ushers me past the razor wire entrance. A series of heavy electronic gates open and close sequentially, giving access to one colorless hallway at a time. Aside from a plaque identifying the governor and warden, the only other embellishment is an LED marquee warning of consequences for bringing contraband on-site.

But as we approach the chaplain’s office, there’s a different ambiance—a welcomeness that starts with the colorful mural surrounding her doorway. Scenes of Christ and angels were created by a prisoner and former tattoo artist who never thought about painting until Hall provided materials, a blank wall, and encouragement to nurture his talent.

Like a mom proudly displaying her children’s artwork, she points out handmade posters and two large cardboard churches. (A white-haired man is painstakingly building a third in the work area outside her door.) These gifts, she says, are “a form of I love you” and the men’s way of “doing any little thing to cheer me up.”

Looking around, I notice lighthearted knickknacks—like the snowman under a signpost indicating “North Pole” in one direction and the chaplain’s native Jamaica in the other—scattered around the small asymmetrical room. 

It’s the same office she once thought she was leaving for good.

Hall never expected prison chaplaincy to be easy, but during a particularly distressing period, she made up her mind not to return after Christmas vacation.

As she walked away from what she assumed was her final worship service there, an inmate who’d gotten wind of her intentions was waiting. Eyes downcast, he extended a letter toward her and said, “Chap, I just want you to have this before you go.”

That night Hall read: 

As I reviewed the many gifts that God has presented in this life, I could not help but find the blessing of you as my Pastor way up at the top of the list. In ways both powerful and gentle, you’ve come to symbolize what is good and compassionate in Christianity . . .

I applaud your tough love as much as I do your joy when we triumph over our awkward natures . . . A chaplain on the outside may have tough parishioners, but I doubt they have the number of knuckleheads that you have in your congregation. And when, in anger, one of these brothers lashes out with ugly sentiments, it’s truly not a personal attack; it’s that the burden of sin is so heavy and so wearying that like a drowning swimmer, we may strike at the very person who dives in to save us.

Thank you for all you do . . .

The God who’d led Hall to ministry in Macon’s medium security prison apparently had not rescinded her calling.

With a patois both charming and sophisticated, the stylish middle-aged grandmother describes her unlikely journey to the chaplaincy—and why she has such empathy for prisoners. The youngest of 12, she grew up in a happy Christian home, though faith hadn’t yet become personal. In her early 20s, Hall left for the northeastern U.S. and pursued her business career another 16 years.

Then a broken relationship changed the course of her life. Devastated and longing for revenge, she went to murder her betrayer, but in an all-consuming rage she passed out before succeeding—a blessing she now attributes to God’s protection and her mother’s prayers. “I did not stop myself; I was too angry and stuck in my own pain,” she said. “I strongly believe it was the powerful work of God that stopped the incident that night, because I was about to kill him.”

Afraid of herself, she ran away to Georgia, hoping to rediscover the peace and joy of her youth. Though angry at God, she accepted her realtor’s invitation to church. “I resisted and was reluctant,” she said, “but still went, because hidden behind everything, I think I wanted the help.”

The pastor, Dr. Charles Callahan, immediately sensed something special about the young woman and urged her to return. He continually delivered sermons with uncanny relevance to her life—leaving Hall annoyed and wondering if he had a spy watching her. Yet under his solid teaching and loving persistence, her faith took root.

She was baptized in the church, but more trouble soon arrived, including her mother’s death and a financial scam. Thinking she “was losing it,” Hall went to see Callahan. “You might not understand what I’m going to tell you,” he said. “But the personal things happening to you aren’t personal; they’re spiritual. God is using them to call you to seminary.”

The pronouncement baffled her—first, because she’d never heard of seminary. After discovering it’s what Jamaicans call “Bible College,” she was puzzled how Callahan discerned such a thing.

Eventually, she let him mentor her through the application process, and early in her studies, she knew prison chaplaincy was God’s plan. Temporary hospital work proved good preparation—ministering to people affected by dire medical conditions helped Hall get past her fear of tough situations. 

And prison, unquestionably, is tough. Hall found it emotionally strenuous to hear stories of unbearable wrongdoing, at times told with a “sick flaunting of wickedness.” She felt such distress for the victims that she wondered, How can I love these men, knowing what they have done? And if I don’t love them, how can I serve them? But the turning point came when she sensed God saying, “Don’t I love you? Look what you’ve done!”

Asked how she lives out her faith in such a difficult environment, the chaplain says she tries to focus on whatever situation is in front of her. With such extreme issues, however, there’s often no human solution. “I deal with it by realizing I don’t have the power to deal with it,” she says. “So I put it on the One who can handle it: I am present physically, but the Person in me is handling the situation.”

To her, chaplaincy is far more than just a job—she loves her “boys,” and they appreciate her maternal approach. Hall is so invested in their success that she’s given exemplary parolees a way to contact her. And she’s gotten late-night calls admitting they’ve slipped, or were about to and wanted “Mom” to dissuade them. “If they sense you’re real,” she says, “they’ll take your advice.”

They also sense her determination that they be treated with dignity, which sometimes means meeting basic needs. State-issued soap, for example, is harsh and irritating (though a decent sculpting medium). So visitors often bring the hygiene and food items their men prefer. But for “indigents,” Hall provides essentials and some treats every 60 or 90 days, depending on donations.

Each Christmas, she expands that effort to include all Central inmates. Gift bags are Hall’s most ambitious project, and one she’s passionate about because it means so much to the men. “What I do,” she says, “is plead with churches throughout the year so I can collect toothpaste, deodorant; some inmates cannot get denture adhesive . . . Until you work in here, you never see the neediness and suffering that not having the basic ‘stuff’ can cause. Even though they’re in prison, you still have to have compassion on them.”

Not all chaplains distribute gifts to inmates. “But I was poor myself,” Hall explains, “so I help them”—by getting donations, purchasing identical products for all the prisoners, and organizing the packing, which, for security reasons, must take place inside the facility.

The gargantuan task is well worth doing because “a lot of the men have never experienced what love is. They see Christ through the love of people who give to their needs, despite the terrible crimes they’ve committed. It’s an example of Jesus on the cross, saying to the thief, ‘Today you will be with Me in paradise.’ That encourages them to change their life and love one another more.”

Hall firmly believes that with proper care, all inmates can be rehabilitated; she constantly prays they’ll have the opportunity to make it “outside.” But if freedom isn’t God’s plan for some, her prayer is that they’ll become missionaries within the prison. They certainly have a good role model.

The chaplain offers me her current church bulletin and then escorts me back through the maze of gates and hallways. As I walk past the coiled razor wire toward my car, the bulletin motto catches my eye: “Imprisoned by man; emancipated by Christ!”

I realize that’s more than just Hall’s message; it’s her personal story. And ours, too.

 

Sidonie Hall can be contacted by email at chap-centsp@dcor.state.ga.us

 

Photography by Ben Rollins

Copyright 2014 In Touch Ministries, Inc. All rights reserved. www.intouch.org. In Touch grants permission to print for personal use only.


14 comments
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  • July 03, 2014 08:12 PM

    by

    Pastor Sidonie Hall is a living and inspiring servant of God. Truly God has a purpose in her life and the same with each of God's children, we all have a calling, simple or big, we are called to bring light into this dark world and just Sidonie Hall she carry the light of Christ and truly she shines from inside that brings out hope, faith and love to those precious souls inside the prison. Glory to God in your life Pastor Sidonie Hall, you are a blessing and may you continue to be a blessing and let your shine be seen and glorify our Father in Christ Jesus. Amen!
    With God's grace -- Agnes
  • August 01, 2013 12:29 PM

    by

    Powerful it had me in tears. God is awesome! This lady is definitely a symbol of courage , commitment, loyalty & devotion .
  • July 29, 2013 11:27 PM

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    Praise be to God for His power! How wonderful it is to see Him use you for His work (: Keep it up girl, a great reward awaits you in Heaven.
  • July 28, 2013 02:58 PM

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    What a powerful story about Servicing God's Kingdom. One important factor I took from this story was when God calls you for a particular task or assignment, you can rest assure that it would be purposeful, fulfilling, and satisfying.
  • July 28, 2013 02:51 PM

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    After reading this story, one thing that convince me was this, when God calls you for a particular assignment, you can rest assure, it will be fulfilling and purposeful. This a true example of fulfilling our duties to enhance the Kingdom of God.
  • July 27, 2013 05:02 PM

    by

    God bless you for doing such a wonderful job of reaching out to our prisoners. We need more of you in all our prisons. It . Is your calling so stay with it

    ALOHA . Aunty Mary from GARDEN GROVE valid
  • July 27, 2013 04:04 AM

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    Pastor Sidonie Hall can be contacted by email at chap-centsp@dcor.state.ga.us.
  • July 19, 2013 11:52 PM

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    M touch by her tough love n determination. What on earth am i doing. A clarion call to wake up .thank u God for her life
  • July 16, 2013 12:48 PM

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    I am so moved by her loyalty, love, and conviction to her "men." I know that God has to be working through her to be in this environment and to give of herself the way she does each and every day. " For the battle is the Lord's," and he has equipped her to aid Him at this place. How can someone help her in donating items to the prisoners? I live in Macon and would love to be able to donate for her mission.
    Shauna Davis (Macon, Ga.)
  • July 02, 2013 12:53 PM

    by

    Chaplain Sidonie Hall is the real deal. She is devoted to The Lord and to the work He has given her. Her pilgrimmage has truly been difficult. I have seen over the past years, as a student, church member, mother with a daughter and grand-child in crisis, the death of that child, grossly taken advantage of by friends because of her graciousness, and wondering for long months if God would ever open a door for ministry. Through it all, she trusted Jesus and never stopped displaying her strong faith and that beautiful, radiant smile. She loves the men in her prison ministries, both the former ministry at Scott State Prison and now at Central State Prison. Sidonie is loved and respected by her men. She commands and deserves it. She commands it with her consistent fairness, her unwavering values, and her strong Christian faith. A former Governor of Georgia was asked once "When will Georgia have a better grade of prisons?" That Governor answered, "When we get a better grade of prisoners." His answer was not taken seriously then, but we can see its reality today, for one, because of a chaplain like Rev. Sidonie Hall, working tirelessly helping to develop a much "better grade of prisoners."
    Dan Parker
  • July 02, 2013 11:34 AM

    by

    How do I contact the chaplain so that I can donate money or items toward her Christmas project and providing "indigents" essentials.

    Robert - (Chicago, IL)
  • July 02, 2013 10:33 AM

    by

    After reading this, all I can say is WOW!!!! The power of Jesus Christ can make a horrible situation beautiful, an unlovely person loveable, and an unredeemable person find peace and redemption. Thank you Lord for this ministry and for this beautiful servant of God. I'm, inspired by the inmates letter and the analogy of a drowning man and this has helped me to see that someone close to me hurt me because they are hurting also. Thank you Dr. Stanley and InTouch MInistries. May God continually use you to bring the peace and freedom of Christ to the suffering. God bless you all.
  • July 02, 2013 08:36 AM

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    Aunt Siddie, We are very proud of you. You have come along away and keep up the good work. Grandma and Grandpa would be ever so proud. I am glad you have found something that gives you peace. I am also glad that you have touched these guys lives and help them feel apart of life again.
    Love you and congratulation on your accomplishments.
    Nadia
  • July 01, 2013 11:44 AM

    by

    So uplifting. I teach some tough public school teens, and this inspired me to keep at it. Thank you and God bless!

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