BOWLING GREEN - As someone who once spent time behind bars, the Rev. Mark Butler said he feels a special calling to minister to inmates in jails and prisons.
The last time he visited the Wood County jail, though, he said he was confronted by the head of the local chaplaincy committee, who told him - in offensive terms - that he wasn't approved to be part of the services the committee holds for inmates.
"As he approached me, he called me boy," Pastor Butler, 47, told Wood County commissioners yesterday. "That is very offensive to an African-American male. I was jolted."
While the incident occurred last August, Pastor Butler, who currently is interim pastor at Agape Congregational Church on Mitchell Road, said he decided to go to county commissioners after getting no response from the county's chaplaincy committee or its chairman, John Parker.
Mr. Parker disagreed with Pastor Butler's account of things and said he could have come to one of the chaplaincy committee's monthly meetings at any time to talk the matter over.
Mr. Parker said he did not use a racial slur, although he was disturbed by Pastor Butler's sudden appearance at a Sunday meeting at the jail.
"He came into our service. He came in one half-hour late. He walked into the service, sat down, and began to raise his hand like we were going to acknowledge him in our service," Mr. Parker said. "To be in the Wood County chaplaincy, you have to be approved, which he was not, or you have to be a guest of the chaplaincy, which he was not."
Mr. Parker said he approached Pastor Butler, who he did not know, afterward and called him "brother," a term he uses for all the men involved in the chaplaincy committee. He said his intention was to let him know he had to follow procedures and be part of the committee to take part in meetings at the jail.
"My philosophy is this: I don't care what color you are, God can use you," Mr. Parker said.
Steve Liebrecht, coordinator of juvenile ministries for the chaplaincy committee, said that while clergy members like Pastor Butler may visit inmates at the jail without being members of the chaplaincy committee, the committee schedules volunteers for the Sunday meetings and those volunteers spend time in preparation and prayer.
"The real heart of the issue is Mr. Butler has not participated actively with the chaplaincy since 1998," Mr. Liebrecht said.
Wood County sheriff's Lt. Butch Roe said the chaplaincy committee oversees Sunday and Thursday services at the jail and has a list of clergy and lay volunteers who are part of the committee. Pastor Butler said he is no longer part of the committee because he lives near Columbus and cannot attend the group's meetings, but he said that was never an issue until recently.
The Rev. Dan Vellinga, president of the Bowling Green Ministerial Association, sent a letter to Mr. Parker last month expressing the group's concerns about Pastor Butler's experience and that of Kristel Asmus, who said she had lost support of the chaplaincy committee for her ministry at the Wood County Juvenile Detention Center.
Mr. Liebrecht said the committee changed its rules to require that female members work only with women and girls at the jail and detention center, but it was not an attempt to exclude Ms. Asmus, who previously worked with boys at the detention center.
He said the committee has gotten more female volunteers recently and wanted to expand the opportunities for them to minister, so it created separate services for boys and girls.
Ms. Asmus could not be reached for comment, but Pastor Vellinga said his concern is that all clergy members have the opportunity to do the work they feel called to.
"We just want to make sure everyone is treated equally and properly, regardless of their race and gender," Pastor Vellinga said.
Jail and detention center officials said clergymen are welcome at their facilities whether or not they are part of the chaplaincy committee, which is primarily a group of lay volunteers.
County commissioners told Pastor Butler they would make sure Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn was aware of his experience at the jail and addresses the issue.
Lieutenant Roe said records show that a now-retired deputy who worked as support services coordinator at the jail spoke with Mr. Parker Aug. 29, a day after Pastor Butler filed a written complaint about the incident. The deputy also tried twice on Aug. 29 and once on Aug. 30 to reach Pastor Butler, but never spoke with him.
"I thought it was resolved," Lieutenant Roe said. "I thought they had talked."
- Jennifer Feehan