In your community, there’s a church you likely know nothing about. You could even call this an invisible church, because nearly everyone in all the other congregations in the community has yet to see it. So is it real? Yes. Yes, it is. But then why is it invisible to the rest of the body? One reason: This is a church that exists behind razor wire fences and block walls. It’s the church behind bars.
Photos by Andrew Thomas Lee
The chains attached to James Murray’s waist, wrists, and ankles clanked every time he shifted in his seat. When the metal was clamped around his limbs back at the county jail, fear had set in—but now he wasn’t paying much attention to that. His eyes were hungrily memorizing every mundane sight flashing past the van’s window as if each tree, car, telephone pole were the last beautiful thing on earth. And as the van moved through the part of town where his two young daughters lived, he scanned each passing face, desperate to recognize anyone. To have some kind of human connection to take with him. Because as far as he knew, these were his last glimpses of the outside world for the next nine years.
When the first heavy door shut behind him, Murray knew he’d just gone invisible to that world on the other side. He obeyed the first order of many to come: Undress and put your personal effects and clothes into this paper bag. These were the things that would belong to him again in nine years. But for now, he had nothing. As he shuffled forward in line to be stripped of any remaining dignity and fumigated with insecticide, he prayed.
Day one of 3,288.
Murray had become a statistic: one of the over 2 million incarcerated Americans who live hidden away from society. That’s roughly one in 107 adults in the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And if we’re talking about being lost in a sea of many, Murray had also become one missing church member unknown to the thousands of congregations that make up the visible body of Christ in his home state of South Carolina. He’d recently become a believer in a dramatic road-to-Damascus encounter prior to his sentence, and his testimony—a man changed by Christ’s love, delivered from years of addiction, depression, and suicide attempts—might have been welcome to share at any Sunday night service. But who was going to leave a comfortable church family to come looking for him?
That world—the one with church buildings, Bible studies in homes and coffee shops, children’s Christmas programs and annual retreats—was now the “outside world.” Short of a Jesus-caliber miracle, Murray wouldn’t have an opportunity to walk through these towering barriers of concrete and steel to let any of those churches know that one of their family members was inside.
Andrea Shelton would be the first to admit that, like many Christians, she was completely ignorant of this world behind walls. She didn’t know anyone in prison—and didn't want to know anyone in prison. Then her older brother Mark got sentenced to 15 years. “Before that,” she recalls, “I forgot them. I know I read the book of Hebrews many times, but the verse that clearly says, ‘Remember those in prison’ (13:3 NLT) never hit me.”
Now it was personal—a member of her family was locked up in this world of barbed wire and red tape—and Shelton was determined to make sure her brother didn’t get lost in the system, either physically or spiritually. She figured her first mission would be to get him a chaplain visit. Making a common assumption, she thought that any prisoner who wants spiritual direction has easy access to it—and that every jail or prison has plenty of chaplains, funded by the state as a common-sense investment towards rehabilitation.
“We’ve seen lives changed through chaplaincy. We don’t see it through secular programs—or by just locking someone up in a cell. We see it through the power of Jesus Christ.”Andrea Shelton, president of HeartBound Ministries
But when Shelton paid a visit to Georgia’s Department of Corrections, she was shocked to learn the reality: Not only were there far fewer chaplains than correctional facilities, but there would soon be none, due to state budget cuts. Shelton, however, is a go-getter and, since she had some experience with politics, knew how to “work the capitol.” So she walked across the street to the iconic gold-domed building and tracked down legislators who apparently weren’t aware that chaplain positions were being eliminated. She managed to convince the Governor to agree to keep them on the payroll but reduce their hours as a compromise. That was 2003, and in just three years of advocacy, the chaplains were reinstated to their original full-time status. But Shelton’s new work was just beginning. Three years later, in 2009, the DOC (Department of Corrections) commissioner eliminated all 16 positions.
Georgia’s incarceration rate is one in every 13—a higher percentage (along with other Southern states) than anywhere else in the world. Currently, as is true in plenty of other states, many chaplains are volunteers who either go unpaid or are minimally supported by a few nonprofits that raise funds for them, such as HeartBound Ministries, the group Shelton eventually founded to keep prison clergy in place. A common storyline for many paid chaplains goes like this: a minister with the passion to make a difference 1) starts out on a payroll; 2) is cut from the budget but stays on in a volunteer capacity; 3) gets another job to pay the bills; and 4) finally has to leave due to financial pressure.
But Shelton says that this picture doesn’t make sense. “When you invest in chaplaincy, you’re guaranteed a return on your investment. These chaplains bring in over two million dollars’ worth of value [to the state] through volunteer programs, through what they do, and yet to fund them costs only about one-eighth of that! But it’s just not a funding priority. Studies show that for inmates who get serious about faith-based programs, the recidivism rate drops from around 67 percent to 14 percent. Even if they look just at economics, every inmate we keep from returning to prison saves the state $18,000 a year, and very quickly, we’ve more than paid for the cost of that chaplain.” [Editor’s note: Nationally, the average wages of a prison chaplain are $24,000, according to Pew Research Center.]
Shelton says that as times have changed and grant money has become nearly impossible to get, her ministry can no longer sustain the funding of chaplaincy. They’re now advocating for the chaplains to be put back on the DOC payroll this year. “It’s really the right thing to do,” she says. “I mean, we talk a great game about criminal justice reform, but we need to put our money where our mouth is. We’ve seen lives changed through chaplaincy. We don’t see that through secular programs—or by just locking someone up in a cell. We see it through the power of Jesus Christ.”
Shelton’s brother had been incarcerated for only a short time when he recognized the hidden potential living there within penitentiary walls. In a letter that changed Shelton’s life, he shared his epiphany that prisoners themselves could be ministers: “Reach out to these men, and in turn, they will reach out to others.”
Believing Mark, she began to find ways to go into the prisons with volunteer groups. “It’s been such a gift that I can now walk into a prison and be absolutely comfortable with the people I'm around. Some people ask, ‘Aren’t you scared?’ And I say, ‘No, I love it.’ I love looking at someone and telling him, ‘Guess what, God loves you.’”
Shelton is sometimes amazed at the freedom she has to share the gospel in prisons. “It’s hard to go across the street and share with your neighbor who thinks he’s already a good, moral person. But people in prisons have had a judge with a gavel say, ‘You have sinned and fallen short of the law.’ That really takes away that barrier of self-righteousness that says, ‘I'm good enough to get to heaven.’ Most of them wouldn’t say that, and it’s so refreshing.”
Shelton has found her own faith revolutionized by spending time with prisoners, particularly in recognizing her own need. “Let’s face it,” she says, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross. I think about how Jesus went to have dinner with Levi and his tax collector friends while the the religious people criticized and said, ‘Why is He eating with them?’ It’s our prideful human nature that says, ‘At least I'm better than them.’ We love to exalt ourselves. We love to feel a little more righteous. Yet that statement—‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’ is really so true. There are people in prison because they did horrible things; there are people in there who were in the wrong place at the wrong time; and there are people who made really poor choices that happen to have greater consequences than my own poor choices.”
How-To in Two Ways: Inside and Outside of Prison
Clifford Jones, a pastor and former inmate, and Stan Green, founder of Riverplace (a re-entry ministry in Abingdon, Va.), provide tips on how both the church and individuals can make a difference.
Take it slow, and do not rush into visiting a prison. Contact the warden and/or chaplain to see what needs there are and how you can help.
Once you’ve established rapport with a correctional facility, consider “adopting” an inmate and sending letters and cards on a regular basis.
Send church newsletters and bulletins. Inmates who are believers need to feel included in a church body.
If Sunday school classes or small groups are going through a Bible study, mail the material for inmates to share with one another.
Open the doors of your church to those being released. Let them know they have a place to worship when they get out.
Utilize the talents in your congregation. Perhaps someone with a degree in counseling could offer a few free sessions; an accountant could host a class on budgeting; or a teacher could provide tutoring for those earning their GEDs.
That first day as an inmate, Murray knew his connection to the outside world was effectively severed, and he’d have to constantly give his fears over to God. He knew that he was powerless to do anything for his daughters. They were just two of over seven million children nationally who had a parent behind bars or under some form of correctional supervision. What would happen to them, especially now that their mother was on drugs? Who in his family would still be around nine years from now? He knew he could die in prison, invisible. He’d heard plenty of stories of inmates who didn’t make it to the end of their sentence—or who were so traumatized that they came out as broken men.
And even when (or should he think if?) he got out, what church, what workplace would want him? There’s a reason well over half the people released from prison come right back within a few years of trying to start a new life. On paper, Murray was a college graduate; but now he was also a convict who would one day be, irrevocably, an ex-con. And even once he’d done his time, to many people that would still mean a criminal.
Never mind that the Bible says there’s no hierarchy among believers, that we’re all “one in Christ”—there are some divisions within cultural Christianity that feature walls so high and thick that we don't even think to see who might be on the other side. It’s far easier to stick with the people who appear to be most like us.
The prison Murray was serving his sentence in was fortunate: it had an employed, full-time chaplain who connected the dynamic church of inmates to the church on the other side. Volunteers—women as well as men—from local congregations faithfully came to visit. Some taught, some led Bible studies, and some built friendships with the inmates. “I loved these people,” says Murray. “It didn’t matter to me what denomination they came from—I knew I could learn something from anyone who came in the name of Christ.”
The founder of Riverplace, a re-entry program that helps released inmates, Stan Green (left) speaks about the ministry that is changing former prisoners. One of those transformed is Chad Sopsher (right), who also shares about the impact Riverplace has had on his life.
It was the church on the inside and the church on the outside, coming together and moving another step toward wholeness. The broken body healing. The eye saying to the foot, I need you. “This was the first time I'd been in relationship with people who were giving without expecting anything in return,” recalls Murray. “Yet they would always say, ‘I get more blessed in coming here than you do in receiving—you bless me more than I bless you.’ I’d think, No way!—until I got out to the other side and became a volunteer and realized how true that is.”
Murray realized that members of God’s family on the inside are confined by prison walls only until the members on the outside walk through them, creating a bridge between worlds. Once that bridge is created, those behind the walls have a connection, a way to minister to the rest of the body long before they return to the other side.
Sam Grant was the first of several volunteers who befriended Murray and committed to mentoring him. More than 22 years later, he and Grant are still brothers who often eat in each other’s home, and the two have gone to minister in prisons together. Then there was Milton Mosley, a pastor who came with a group of volunteer Bible teachers—mostly women. From the start, Murray knew the Lord was connecting him with Mosley. “Every time he spoke, it was as if God was speaking through him directly to me. I’d be on my face—I had no shame about that—and God would be dealing with me.” Every time he came to the prison, Mosely noticed the man who got down on the floor to let God deal with him, and the two men struck up a relationship that grew richer with each visit.
So it seemed only natural that Mosely would continue their close relationship once Murray got out with nothing to his name but freedom—and a place in Mosley’s 50-member church. “I had nothing,” Murray remembers, “not even a place to stay. Yet they welcomed me and took me in.” The church pooled resources and rented a sparse but functional place that would serve as both a transitional home for Murray and Sunday school classrooms.
“At the end of time, Jesus is going to separate His people and tell them, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you came to me, I was a stranger and you took me in.’ With prison ministry, you’re doing all those things—and when you do it to ‘the least of these,’ you’re doing it Him.”James Murray, pastor, volunteer, prison chaplain, and former inmate
Murray lived there for the next five years, and the church stood by him as he stuck with Celebrate Recovery (a Christian addiction recovery program), eventually got a job in spite of his record, and worked on becoming more of a father to his two daughters. Though the damage caused by Murray’s long absence was serious, God’s continuous work beneath the surface finally broke through, bearing the fruit of restored relationship.
All the while, Mosley was “fanning the flame” of the pastoral gifts he’d recognized in the younger man as Paul mentored Timothy—and eventually ordained Murray, who now pastors his own small church. The two have continued their close relationship, and Murray regularly calls Mosely for counsel, having learned from his prison days that going it on your own never bears fruit in the long run. “I’ve learned that one of the most successful things a person can do is be willing to be made accountable,” he explains. “The paradox is that, if you’re willing to make yourself accountable, that’s where you get true freedom. And then God is able to entrust you with more responsibilities; and the more responsibilities, the more you have to submit to Him. A Philippians 2:1-11 kind of submission—that’s the way of Christ.”
Striving to practice the humility his mentors exemplified, Murray found himself in increasingly demanding positions of leadership and influence. It started the day one of the volunteers he’d known while still an inmate first called him “boss”—and stretched into the years when he shared a stage with Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson as they spoke to crowds of prisoners and Christian leaders. Murray visited prisons all over the nation during his 16 years on Prison Fellowship’s staff, and he says he often wept on these visits, simply because of the power of Christ’s presence moving in the midst of His church there.
Today, while Murray works as an unpaid chaplain and faces the daily challenges that come with fighting for the hearts of men, he still feels that of all the places he’s privileged to minister, it’s there, on the other side of the wall, that he experiences God most profoundly. “The Lord honors His Word,” he explains. “He says that ‘I was in prison and you visited Me.’ And so when you visit Him—in His presence is the fullness of joy.”
The fact of the matter is, Jesus made it all very simple: His people are to visit Him in prison. And when we do, we’ll find Him there. He’s the one who walks through walls—and makes a way for us to follow Him.