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Published: Sunday, 4/2/2006

Chaplains share faith behind bars

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Diann Revels, an ordained minister, leads inmates during Bible study at the Lucas County jail. Some 35 volunteers with the Lucas County Jail Chaplaincy Committee conduct more than 20 Bible studies and church services each week. Diann Revels, an ordained minister, leads inmates during Bible study at the Lucas County jail. Some 35 volunteers with the Lucas County Jail Chaplaincy Committee conduct more than 20 Bible studies and church services each week.
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Diann Revels sits at one end of a folding table, an open Bible and several pages of handwritten notes spread out before her, as she scans the roomful of maximum-security inmates.

"Ephesians 6 describes the armor of God - the shield of faith, the breastplate of righteousness. Why do we need that?" she asks, tilting her head back and waggling a finger in the air.

One inmate raises his hand.

"Yes?"

"Because we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers of this dark world," he responds.

A smile flares across Ms. Revels' face.

"You guys are good!" she says joyfully.

Surrounded by 13 men in brown coveralls in a small, sixth-floor cement-block room, Ms. Revels looks dressed in her Sunday best with her bright red slacks, print shirt, gold hoop earrings, and carefully coiffed curls.

But she is right at home in the Lucas County jail's most dangerous floor because she's been leading Bible studies there for 25 years.

Ms. Revels is one of 35 volunteer chaplains who conduct more than 20 Bible studies and church services every week at the downtown correctional facility.

She feels compelled to help society's outcasts, she says, following Jesus' words in Matthew 25:36: "I was in prison, and you visited me."

Ms. Revels, an enthusiastic and bold teacher, says her chaplaincy work was inspired by a divine vision many years ago.

"The Lord showed me that this is what I'd be doing. He showed me the prison bars and everything," she says. "It is so rewarding. I'd rather be here than in a regular, traditional church service."

Chaplain Ed Norwood prays with inmate James Braylock during a church service at the jail. Chaplain Ed Norwood prays with inmate James Braylock during a church service at the jail.
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The Lucas County Jail Chaplaincy Committee, a nondenominational group that provides for the inmates' spiritual needs, trains chaplains with a rigorous six-month program. Volunteers must take classes and sit in on jail services led by veteran chaplains.

"We could use 50 or 55 chaplains," says the Rev. James Jackson, chairman of the chaplaincy committee.

His predecessor, the Rev. George Hairston, led the chaplaincy committee for 25 years before "retiring" in January. He still visits the jail three or four times a week.

The six-month training program for the unpaid chaplaincy position weeds out those who are not suited for the task, Mr. Hairston says.

"This is serious business. We take it very seriously," he says. "We don't rush anybody. You're shaping somebody's life."

Mr. Hairston advises inmates to use the library and other resources to make the most of their time while behind bars.

"Don't go out the same way you came in," he says. "Get yourself together. There is all kinds of help available."

Inmates Michael Madrid, at left, and Derrick Jones resolve a difference as James Braylock sits during church services at the Lucas County jail. Inmates Michael Madrid, at left, and Derrick Jones resolve a difference as James Braylock sits during church services at the Lucas County jail.
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While many inmates wind up back behind bars, he has seen many success stories over the years - prisoners who went on to lead productive lives with solid careers.

"I've even seen some of them go to school for ministry and get degrees," he says.

The jail also has chaplains on call around the clock for emergency spiritual help, says Debbie DeCola, director of inmate services. In addition to the nondenominational Christian services, the jail offers Mass for Catholics and prayer services every Friday for Muslims and ensures that a rabbi is available if needed.

The prisoners may sit in the jail for days, weeks, or even months awaiting trial.

For many, Bible studies and church services help them get through the dark days while they wait to stand before a judge.

"I just need it. I need to be here," inmate David Jones, 44, of Toledo, says of the sixth-floor Bible study. "I feel that the only person who can help me is God."

Charles Austin, 38, tells Ms. Revels that he wishes he had a list of tricks the devil uses to deceive him.

"I would carry it around and look at it so I know when he is trying to trick me," Austin says.

Too often, he says, he doesn't realize he's been duped until it is too late.

"Satan is attacking me but I cannot see it, I cannot perceive it," he says, his voice straining with emotion. "I look back and I see Satan had me. He was manipulating me."

"Satan fills our heads with a bunch of junk!" Ms. Revels says firmly. "Satan beats us up. He is the father of lies. He fights dirty. He plays mind games like you wouldn't believe. You can't play with the devil. He will put your lights out! He will take you out!" she says sternly. "You need the Holy Spirit. Let me ask you a question: Can you pray God's Word if you don't know the Bible?"

Robert Nelson, 29, charged with attempted murder, raises his hand: "Faith comes by hearing and hearing the Word of God."

"If this was a game show, I would say, 'Good answer!' " Ms. Revels says with a smile. "God has a plan for your lives. I'm just a nobody trying to tell everybody about somebody who can save everybody."

She asks an inmate to lead the group in prayer. Everyone stands and forms a circle, clutching each other's hands as the inmate speaks: "Let these spiritual teachings be embedded in our hearts so we can apply them and speak daily of you to others."

Every Sunday afternoon, church services are held on all five floors that house inmates.

The sober-living unit on the second floor is a relatively new wing where inmates volunteer to live in a dormitory setting and undergo treatment for drug or alcohol abuse.

Ed and Kathy Norwood lead the Sunday service in a meeting room lined with windows overlooking the unit's common area. A dozen inmates carry their plastic chairs into the room while other prisoners, wearing blue coveralls, relax by playing chess and various other board games or watching ESPN's Sports Center on TV.

The windows facing outside are thick plastic and nearly opaque, with two rows of metal bars blocking whatever view might remain.

The Norwoods, laymen who attend Westside Community Church, have volunteered as jail chaplains for six years.

Mr. Norwood, wearing a royal blue shirt, red tie, and white pants, asks the inmates if God has done something good for them this week.

"He's done a lot for me," one inmate responds. "I've been going crazy the last couple weeks because my court date keeps getting continued. I've been hard-headed. But now it's a little bit different. Now I'm walking with God."

"Rest in the Lord, and he will give you peace," Mr. Norwood advises. "He's in control."

He invites an inmate, Turhan Johnson, to come forward.

"Brother Johnson has a song for us," Mr. Norwood says.

Johnson, eyes closed, begins singing a soulful hymn, his baritone voice ending each chorus with the line: "My soul has been anchored in the Lord."

The hour-long Bible study focuses on God's revelations, and Mr. Norwood talks about how he had been an alcoholic before God turned his life around.

"God has some awesome plans for you," he tells the inmates.

"He has you in a place where you can listen. Take advantage of it," he said.

As the 90-minute Bible study concludes on the maximum-security sixth floor, Robert Nelson of Toledo picks up a well-worn paperback Bible - one with no staples, the only kind inmates are allowed - and heads for the door.

"I'm here for trying to kill my wife," he says. "I had a drug addiction. But things are getting better."

He and his wife recently started talking again, he says, his face lighting up with a smile.

The Bible has been a source of comfort and encouragement to him ever since he was locked behind bars, he says.

He didn't know the Bible before he was arrested, but now he studies it constantly. Does he regret not reading it earlier in life?

"Yes, but also no," he says. "Philippians 3:13 says, 'One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.' So I can't look back; I just have to look ahead."

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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