Alva helps build chapel behind prison walls
‘It takes a lot for the community to come together with people who are incarcerated, to mingle with them and help out. This chapel building opened my eyes and my heart. I came here a lost soul, and I’ve dedicated my life to the Lord.’ — Daniel Fair
‘God built this place. It touched my heart to be able to work on this chapel, actually be a part of it coming together, knowing the money came from individuals, through their hearts. When I sit in this place, I feel a new touch of love. This chapel is very vital to me.’ — Bradley Yarberry
By Holly McCray and Ronnie Wallin
Men held Bible studies in the prison yard when indoor meeting space was overrun by growing housing needs at the state facility in Alva.
They hunger for spiritual food at Bill Johnson Correctional Center (BJCC).
Now a new chapel building on the grounds nourishes them because of caring people in Alva, including significant support by those at First United Methodist Church.
In July 2010, First UMC hosted the first community meeting of citizens interested in such a project. Collectively, donors matched a $250,000 grant by the SHARE Trust in Alva, and construction began in September.
Side by side, skilled workers, handy volunteers, and offenders built together, directed by World Mission Builders.
Completed ahead of schedule and under budget, the building was dedicated on April 22. Totaling 6,000 square feet, the Don Benson Center includes the chapel and classrooms.
Participation in programming is up about 50 percent and 92 offenders had been baptized, according to August interviews with prison officials and church leaders. Eleven new volunteers have security clearance to go behind the walls.
"God’s timing was in on every bit of this," said Terry Martindale, pastor at Alva-First. "It’s all part of the kingdom Jesus talked about that could be on earth as it is in heaven. The Gospel speaks through and to the people in the church. They hear that and feel a desire to be in service."
The pastor and prison officials affirmed First UMC member Richard Ryerson, who energized the community-wide effort. Ryerson led the Alva Chapel Creation Coalition, with six of its 14 members from First UMC. Prison warden is Janice Melton, also a First UMC member.
But Ryerson emphasized, "We truly had support from every area of this community. How many times do you ask people to serve on a committee and get no turn-downs?"
Melton reported "a lot of God-moments." Together, offenders and volunteers wrote favorite Bible verses on the chapel’s concrete floor before it was carpeted. Construction workers taught building skills. Three men were promised jobs after they are released. Using wood scraps, one offender and volunteer built the large cross above the chapel’s baptismal pool.
Widespread backing for the project came from Alva churches, businesses, civic groups, and Northwestern Oklahoma State University. Hands-on help included a roofing company consisting of former offenders.
The local ministerial alliance gave the initial $1,000 for the project when Warden Melton met with the group. "That was a big ecumenical symbol," recalled Rev. Martindale.
In the Benson Center, the Vera Mae Eversole Chapel commemorates a $25,000 gift to the project, made through a family trust managed by the Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation.
The generosity resulted because citizens of Alva "understand what goes on at Bill Johnson," said Jason Bryant, BJCC program director.
"There aren’t many people with extended family or friends who haven’t gotten into a bind at some time. There is an awareness and a sympathy that there needs to be good programs in place to help."
Bill Johnson Correctional Center houses about 600 men. A minimum-security facility, it is a drug offender work camp, using multiple methods designed to break the cycle of drug use.
"This is a specialized facility; because of the programs, people are sent here from all over the state," Martindale said.
Opened in 1995, BJCC has sustained one of the lowest recidivism rates in the nation, said Warden Melton. Among men who have completed its programming, 73-80 percent have not returned to the state corrections system.
Melton has been BJCC’s only warden.
"What we do at Bill Johnson is somewhat unique in the system," she said. "We try to give drug offenders the tools they need to go out and be drug-free and crime-free. It’s our hope we touch many areas of lives, not just substance abuse, not just behavioral issues."
She said BJCC can make available tools to inform people about spirituality. "To me, the ideal opportunity for these guys would be for them to put into context what we give them on an information level with higher callings and higher purposes for their lives."
The chapel displays a cross, but any faith group is welcome to use the space, the warden noted. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections neither endorses nor requires participation in any religion but does permit volunteer religious services and faith-based programs.
Melton applauded the relationships formed between volunteers and offenders.
"People change through contact with other people. That’s powerful. I don’t think you can put a price on how that keeps people from coming back to prison."
She continued, "We have wonderful, committed staff, but we are not just a stand-alone facility. The community support and the volunteers that come in here help to impact people."
She said the chapel building also reminds the men that their incarceration is a temporary stage in their lives.
"It is a prison," she said. "This is an experience because of what they’ve done, but this is not who they are."
Ryerson said, "When they leave, they are returning citizens. Sometimes we don’t think of them this way."
Deputy Warden Craig Beavers described the formal graduation ceremony hosted at the chapel for offenders who complete General Education Degrees. He said the new setting makes it more meaningful and inspiring.
Such extensive, ongoing community commitment will ensure the building’s mission continues, agreed prison officials and church leaders.
"What happened here was beautiful and continues to be a blessing on people’s lives," Martindale said.
"This can encourage other towns that have prisons. Think about building chapels, about not only an opportunity to work with the prison facility but also what the potential is when everybody works together."
The steeple on the new building is visible to offenders when they first arrive at BJCC. "They see there’s a possibility for help," said Martindale, "and when they leave, they leave with hope."
This continues a series focusing on the Strategic Plan for the Oklahoma Conference—http://www.okumc.org/strategicplan