On June 27, 2013, Colby Miller and I volunteered to tag along with the Mercy Road Team of the Gospel Echoes during their ministry visit to the Frackville State Corrections Facility for men. They had been visiting most of the state’s prison’s during the month of June, zig-zagging back and forth across the state.
Colby and I had about an hour and forty five minutes of driving to do. We met the big blue Gospel Echoes bus in a mall parking lot close to the prison. We climbed aboard and were welcomed by our friend Adam Lehigh, pianist and vocalist with the team, as well as Jon and Karleen Sommers, leaders of the team. We were privileged to meet their delightful young children Alexi and Tyler, who were not at all shy of strangers and very cute. Tyler wanted to pray for us, so after Jon prayed he let Tyler say a very dear, short prayer. Also, Karleen’s brother Chris Eigsti had just joined them and will be replacing Adam (since he thought he had to go and get married). I handed the keys to my new car to a stranger. She seemed trustworthy to drive my car, even if she was a female 🙂 Anyway, she is the nanny for the Sommer’s children. Any children under 18 are not aloud in the prisons, so the three of them found entertainment elsewhere. Here is a link for more info on the team: http://www.gospelechoes.com/teams/mrt/mrt_page.html
Upon arrival at the prison I noticed immediately that this was a very grim place. We parked in the middle of the parking lot and immediately an officer was there in a truck asking us what we were doing. Jon explained, and we were allowed to enter the lobby. There we waited for a while until finally the appropriate security personnel could come.
(For your information, this was a class 4 maximum security prison.)
Several months previously Colby and I filled out a long form so the state could do a background check on us. We both cleared and were allowed to come along. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) was given an exact list of everything and everyone that would be brought into the service. It included 6 people, 3 carts, 1 sound board, 1 compressor, equalizer, 1 mini disc player, 2 powered speakers, 2 small powered monitors, 2 speaker stand, 3 mic stands, 3 mics, 3 mic stand plates, 21 cables, 1 keyboard, 1 keyboard stand, 1 stool, and 1 pedal. All of it needed examined very closely and checked off a list. Anything or anyone not on the list absolutely could not enter. It was frustrating, but Jon was very nice to the men. (He knows that the best way to handle things like that is to simply do exactly what they say, even if it seems ridiculous.) We all had to sign in, get visitors passes, and go through security like you would at an airport.
The one officer was trying to sound intimidating right from the start, and mentioned that he hopes there is no trouble. Jon said we would pray that there would not be trouble. The officer was not impressed, and clearly was not interested in Christianity.
We finally got through all of that. Then we were escorted by DOC officers down a long hall with concrete walls all around. Next we had to show our passes to about three other DOC officers at a gate. Now we were inside. Wow, it was pathetic. I remember how awful it felt. I was a little nervous. The walls were huge, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from the service. It was very grim, bleak, and depressing. Concrete and steel seemed to be the choice material of the architect.
We walked further, and an officer escorted us through another gate. We arrived at the chapel lobby. We went into the chapel and began setting up the equipment. It didn’t take them long, they are used to doing it all the time. I counted 84 chairs. An officer said 71 were coming. The prison population was around 1,300. Colby noticed Christian, Islam, and Catholic religious literature on the tables in the lobby.
Soon the men all arrived. They filled in nicely from the front, as we shook there hands and such. Security officers stood in the back, and kept a very close eye on the men. The music began and about 10 songs were sang. Oh how the men loved it! They clapped, said amen, and hallelujahed all the way through. Then Jon introduced the group and also had Colby and I introduce ourselves and give a testimony. We stated that were were not better than them, and that all of use are equally sinful in the sight of God. Then Jon preached for about 20 minutes. It was an amazing sermon on Josiah’s repentance in the book of II Kings. Then he gave an invitation to any unsaved, but none responded. He then asked anyone who was struggling with a habit, sin, or just wanted Jesus more in their lives to stand. A good many of the men stood as Jon prayed with them. He encouraged all the men there to reach out to the other 1,230 men there. When it was over, the men were so eager to come shake our hands. I never have seen so many smiling faces in one place – and, of all places, it was in a physical prison!
When we left the exact same procedure was repeated. We waited patiently as every last cable was counted and put back into the box – 18, 19, 20, 21, perfect! By now, the officer who was rough at the beginning had mellowed and was nice to us, thanked us, and told us to be careful on the roads (it was storming and raining heavy). Perhaps a little bit of Christ’s love wore off on him during the service and security proceedings!
Colby and I talked a lot about the experience on our long ride home. Imagine being in that horrible place for life. How could they act so happy? Are they real Christians? What are we? Are we a sad case for Christ? I had to think, so often I struggle with being trapped in a prison of sin. I can’t get out. I try and try, but…its walls are always there. I’m much worse off with a spiritual prison than those men are with their physical prison. To them, they would love if Obama would walk in and give them a presidential pardon. They could walk right out completely innocent! Likewise, many who struggle with sin wish they could be free. God is handing me the key. He’s handing you the key. Will we turn it? He isn’t forcing us to get out into freedom, it’s our choice. How can it even be that His awesome love and grace allows us to even have that option!? Praise the Lord there is victory over sin!
Both Colby and I would gladly accept the privilege to do it again. Would you want to do it? It’s an amazing experience, one you will not forget. It may help you in your walk with Jesus even more than it would help them. If you are single, consider doing something like this as volunteer service for a while. Or, if you are married, husband and wife missions are great! I know I want to do more of this type of stuff. Praise the Lord for this opportunity, and may God bless you richly as you seek to serve Him!
Jesus Christ, I love you! Help me to have as much energy and zeal, and enthusiasm for you as those men portrayed in a gloomy, maximum security prison. They had found freedom! Lord, give me spiritual freedom from the bondage of sin. Work in my life; cleanse me from all unrighteousness, and lead me in your will for my life!
Always feel free to leave any comments below! 🙂
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