It was about a quarter ‘til 1 by the time we arrived up at the chapel, a square-shaped room on the second floor of Marion County Jail II, here in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Normally, the inmates start trickling in around one o’clock. But the midday count got screwed up, so everything was running way behind schedule.

Seven times a day, the jail does a count of all its inmates to assure that everybody’s accounted for. A few weeks back, three inmates got caught trying to escape after one man’s girlfriend slid a couple hacksaw blades through a tiny hole in one of the exterior windows. Needless to say, these counts are not performed without reason.

In the meantime, the four of us had to sit around playing the waiting game. So George “Midget” Whirley and Jim Harmon, leaders in the Christian motorcycle club Unchained Ministries, got into a discussion about the people, places and upcoming events of the outreach ministry. They have the annual “Toy Run” just around the corner, and members of Unchained have also been asked to be greeters at the entrances of the Indianapolis Cycle Fest in mid-November. The areas of ministry for the group go well beyond the confines of jails and prisons.

But for the time being, we are in jail. And we’re gearing up for a Sunday afternoon church service. Every third Sunday, Unchained holds two afternoon services at Jail II. They also lead Bible studies and church services at over 40 other correctional facilities throughout the state of Indiana.

Jim Harmon (left), president of the Marion County chapter of Unchained, greets a fellow member after a recent morning ride.

Service of a Different Sort

By 1:30, a few inmates started trickling into the chapel. As it turned out, they were part of the choir and also helped arrange the seating for the upcoming service, lining up the plastic chairs in perfect rows.

A few minutes later, the rest of the prisoners began to arrive. They came in shifts, as each pod was released one-at-a-time…all of them dressed in orange from head-to-toe, including the slippers and canvas shoes most were wearing.

Midget and Jim hung out by the door and greeted each inmate that walked through, looking them squarely in the eye and shaking their hands with an inherent sense of care and compassion. Greetings of friendship were exchanged with a few, who clearly had an ongoing relationship with the Unchained guys.

Despite my presence as an unfamiliar face, many inmates walked over to me as well, shaking hands and offering greetings of welcome, and a shared sense of spiritual belief. We were all there to worship as one Body.

The scene reminded me of my time in the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidates School (OCS) in Quantico, Virginia, which I attended a few years back before getting kicked out in the last week of the ten-week program (a story for another time). But at OCS, stress levels were at an all-time high. Little reprieve was offered from the pressures of the place, save one…the weekly church service.

This is the same impression I felt at Jail II. This chapel was a safe place to gather beyond the normal tensions of life behind bars…a rare taste of collective unity amid the underlying discord associated with incarceration.

Family Unity

By the time all the inmates had made their way into the room, they totaled almost 60 and were all ages and races. The chaplain made some introductory remarks, welcoming the inmates and Unchained Ministries. He then opened it up to praise reports and prayer concerns.

I had to do a double take when I heard the first praise report.

“I’ve been in here 15 months, going back and forth to court for trial,” explained the inmate. “And I want to thank God that my case just got plea bargained.”

Metal mesh coves the windows on the second floor of Jail II, which houses inmates as well as the chapel. Despite the confinement, there is a community of believers behind those walls.

His potential 40-year sentence just got reduced to 6-11 years. He would soon be headed to the state penitentiary to serve his time. He never mentioned the charge, but it was clearly serious. And he clearly had a relationship with God as well, though I surely don’t know the details. Either way, I was forced to reevaluate my ever-evolving definition of a Christian brother.

Another shared his own prayer concern.

“I’ve started realizing I need to get out of God’s way,” he said. “I need to let go, and let God.”

The choir then took over. Seven men sang, one played the keyboard, another played the drums and a third ran the sound board. They opened with a modified version of Lionel Richie’s, Easy like a Sunday Morning. The choir brought harmonies, melodies and subtle instrumentals. When I closed my eyes, I swore I heard the Commodores singing.

Most in the room lit up as the energy in the room went into full worship. Hands were clapping, and heads were bobbing. Mid-song, one member of the choir grabbed the mic and belted a faith-based rap he’d clearly been rehearsing in his off-time.

The choir finally wound down its singing and Midget took to the mic, opening with prayer.

He, himself, spent over 12 years behind bars before finding Christ, and his testimony is compelling. He brought it with him to the stage.

“I remember I blamed the world for my troubles,” he exclaimed. “But God has a way of humbling us.”

George “Midget” Whirley (far right) chats with fellow members before a ride.

He continued on with a message of redemption and transformation. His voice boomed with power and authority. And the audience listened. He had no image to maintain, no personal glory to seek. He was there for these men, offering a message of God’s love. It was powerful.

After Midget closed in prayer, the loudspeakers boomed for inmates to return to their pods. We shook hands as they exited, everyone feeling the shared camaraderie of spiritual communion.

A guard came in to escort us back down the elevator to the front entrance. And just like that, we were gone.

But the images are ingrained of a service unlike any other, but it was with brothers in Christ just like any other. I have to keep pondering that point.

These guys are my brothers, and they’re your brothers too. They’re overlooked by most, but they must never be forgotten!

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Next Steps
    • Contemplate that picture of the Christian community, the patchwork of people we must call Family. I don’t know about you, but I often prefer a tidy image of those who make up my Brothers and Sisters. That image is wrong, and so am I.
    • Think about the example of service provided by Unchained Ministries. Pay particular attention to the volunteer opportunities they have for people in Indiana, whether you ride a motorcycle or not. Do you have the time to get involved? Can you make the time? Pray about it.
    • Do you, or someone you know, enjoy riding motorcycles? Unchained welcomes new members all the time. You must be a Christian, and your bike must be 650cc or larger.
    • Pray for those in prison…the inmates, the employees and those that minister to them all.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Stephen Crane is a year-long fellow with World Next Door. He has a bachelor's degree in theology from Calvin College and a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University. He has a passion for overlooked places and people and would snowboard at all times if it were possible!

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Comments

  1. Amy K. Sorrells said... 

    Reply

    November 8th, 2011 at 5:39 pm  

    Another heart-rending view of the jail ministry and of God working powerfully among these men. Since I’m the first to comment, I’ll go ahead and throw a controversial view out there, and confess the whole subject strikes a chord of ambivalence within my heart. In fact, this might be the most difficult series I’ve read on WND. As someone hurt by 1) some folks who should’ve been in jail and 2) someone who had been in jail, sometimes it’s really difficult for me to look past what a person did and into their hearts. For me, it’s a survival instinct, and a very real post-traumatic stress reaction, too. Not to mention that sometimes it’s absolutely necessary to maintain safe boundaries.

    However–and that’s a big however–I know wholeheartedly God calls us–He calls ME–to love them. He calls us to reach out to them. Your posts help me separate the “one” from the “them” and move toward him/her more like Jesus would. These beautiful stories pierce through the ugly, bitter places in my heart and help me see.

    No small accomplishment, Stephen, and one I’m knees-on-the-ground grateful for.

  2. Steve-O said... 

    Reply

    November 9th, 2011 at 12:26 pm  

    You’re not alone in your reaction Amy.
    And I wholeheartedly agree that most are locked up for good reason, and should remain there to serve the penalty of their crime. Do the crime, do the time..absolutely.
    And as you say, I think there is a general indifference by many in the Church (based on a variety of factors) for the incarcerated, which is one reason I wanted to address the subject.
    I wanted to shed light on this often-overlooked group of people that we, as Christians, are called to acknowledge.. And what’s more, we’re called to visit and build relationships! Kind of an intimidating prospect..
    Jails and prisons aren’t enjoyable places, but I do know that God is there. And as we see at Golgotha, Hope and Grace are available to anyone willing to accept it, regardless of (and because of!) past behavior! What an awesome, humbling prospect!!
    I, for one, live in that grace, cuz I’m a screw-up from start to finish, even if my ongoing transgressions don’t necessarily warrant a place behind bars.
    One of my favorite verses is in I Samuel 16:7 – “..The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
    Thank goodness!! And one reason I tend to be more leery of men in three-piece suits than men in orange jumpsuits… The former has devoted a whole lotta time to external presentation. The latter has far less to hide.

  3. Sharron Ison-Hicks said... 

    Reply

    November 11th, 2011 at 9:01 am  

    Wonderful article

  4. Laura Stump said... 

    Reply

    November 13th, 2011 at 7:00 am  

    Thank you for the message, Steve-O. Amy, as I was reading your thoughts (and then Stephen’s) I remembered a short parable I heard this week:

    If you throw a handful of salt in a bowl of water, it will be too salty to drink, but if you throw it in a river, the water is fine.

    The message is supposed to be about loving abundantly. I love it because it doesn’t claim the broadening our compassion protects us from the salt or hurt, but it makes it bearable. Prisons are filled with people who have produced serious hurt in the lives of others (or our own lives). I think we shy away from these guys because they truly test the boundaries of our ability to forgive and show grace like God wants.

    This article makes me think…if I can’t go there or love people in prison, than I need to work on building up capacity, so to speak. My river is not broad enough to handle all the salt out there! I have some work to do (as always).

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