Rebuilding a church, giving inmates hope

Bishop accepts donations to restore burned sanctuary

October 22, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

In the stark cinderblock room known as the chapel at the state prison in Jessup, Bishop Oscar E. Brown gave 75 inmates a message yesterday that they are not "second-class citizens" and that they will emerge from prison better men.

In turn, the inmates gave him a check for $650 to help rebuild his church, First Mount Olive Free Will Baptist Church. The church's steeple was hit by lightning in July, causing a fire that devastated the building.

For years, members of the church have been volunteering at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup to lead inmates in prayer and fellowship. When inmates learned of the fire, they saw a chance to give back. In all, 125 of the facility's 1,040 inmates made a contribution.

"We feel like they're part of our family," said Paul Hamby, 43, who contributed $1 to the West Baltimore church. "It's our duty as Christians to help one another."

About half of the $650 came from the inmates. Prison staff donated the rest. The sum, while small compared to other donations First Mount Olive has received, is significant because it comes from inmates who have little themselves. The prisoners earn money by working at the facility, but the jobs pay only 65 cents to $1 per day.

"The amount doesn't matter as much as the sentiment of them wanting to be a part of something larger than their confinement here," said Brown.

The medium-security facility houses men convicted of crimes including murder, but it is also home to a thriving faith community. A dozen religions send representatives to the prison to work with the inmates. And prison warden Carolyn A. Atkins believes the inmates are less likely to fall back into a life of crime if they are connected to a religious institution.

Some of the men said they have become more religious during their time in prison, and they have learned the value of giving. Prisoners have donated to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, the Ronald McDonald House, and the surviving relatives of the Dawson family, whose home in East Baltimore was firebombed in 2002 after they reported drug activity in their neighborhood.

"When a ministry is teaching you or bringing the word of God, it's your responsibility to give back to that church," said Phillip Branch, 49, who gave $15. "Inmates who work here make $18 to $25 a month, and they donated from their meager earnings."

First Mount Olive is still in the planning stages of a new church and has not begun to rebuild. Brown says it will be at least a year before a new church can open its doors.

In the meantime, he took 40 members of the church to the prison yesterday to receive the donation and join the inmates in a service. In a rousing sermon that brought the room to its feet, Brown told the inmates that the steps - and stops - in their lives are ordered by God.

"This is just a stop," Brown said. "This is just a stop. It ain't your destiny. ... It took our church to have a fire to get me here to tell you God loves you. You had your own personal fire to get to this point to hear that God loves you. So stop beating yourself up about yesterday."

He told the inmates, most of them dressed in prison-issue blue shirts and blue pants, that when men find themselves in bondage, they begin to question their existence. But he urged them to have hope and said, "Everybody in the word of God messed up at one time or another."

Quoting from Psalms, he said the test of a good man is whether he understands he must depend on God to get him through.

The idea to collect money for First Mount Olive came from the prison chaplain, the Rev. Reginald W. Bellamy Sr. He said one inmate gave all he had - 14 cents. Many could give only a dollar or two. But Bellamy said the donations undercut the notion that prisons are filled with soulless people.

"As much as you hear that's bad, there is good on the inside," he said. "This was an act of love from the inside."

Both the prison choir and the First Mount Olive choir sang during the service, their voices bouncing off the walls of the small chapel deep inside a prison ringed with multiple layers of fences and concertina wire.

"It's a small amount," Hamby said of the donation. "But maybe it will inspire someone on the outside to get involved, because their resources are greater than ours."

Inside the chapel, though, the men seemed rich in other ways.

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