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 moving letter to remind her of the reason for her calling.

Editor's Note: The following article originally ran in the July 2013 issue of In Touch Magazine. 

 

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 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.

Related Topics:  Mercy

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