New church jail crowd happy for chance to sit in audience

Worship leaders Tim Gilleand (left) and Taryn Fusselman lead the congregation in song during the inaugural Residents Encountering Christ (REC) women’s church service held May 2 at the Huntington County Jail. Sheriff Chris Newton says the services have been well attended by both male and female inmates since it began and the response has been very positive.
Worship leaders Tim Gilleand (left) and Taryn Fusselman lead the congregation in song during the inaugural Residents Encountering Christ (REC) women’s church service held May 2 at the Huntington County Jail. Sheriff Chris Newton says the services have been well attended by both male and female inmates since it began and the response has been very positive.

Sometimes those who sit in church feel like they are a captive audience. At the Huntington County Jail, the audience is, indeed, captive – but they are more than glad to be in church.

“I’ve made some bad choices and so this time around I’m going to prison,” says Gwendera Nevil, who has been incarcerated at the jail “on and off” – in her words – the past 1-1/2 years. “Now that I’m back in here and I’m back at square zero, I’m learning some more tools to try and better my life, and this is definitely inspiring. It’s definitely making me want to give myself back to God.”

Nevil is one of about 20 women of the 38 incarcerated at the jail who attended the inaugural, non-denominational church service on May 2. Held inside the newly renovated recreation room, female and male inmates are allowed to go to the separated service every other Thursday.

Nevil says she’s learning that to forgive, she must forgive herself. Letting God forgive her has opened the door to her letting go of past grudges and finding the inner peace she needed. Attending the service, dubbed REC (Residents Encountering Christ), has helped her turn her thinking around.

“I felt like I was in this ‘stuck’ place that I made these same decisions again, and now I feel like a weight lifted from my heart; it’s lifted off my shoulders, and I can go forward from this point,” she says. “I definitely felt it (the service) was very personal, especially when he (the preacher) said, ‘If anybody wants to give themselves to God’ – I felt like he was talking exactly to me.”

Nevil’s reaction is exactly what Huntington County Sheriff Chris Newton hopes the service will do – penetrate hearts and change the lives of the inmates in his jail.

“This is a portion of our community that really doesn’t get ministered to, or have never had any type of pastoral care,” Newton says. “This is one-on-one, where they can actually ask the questions and hear what God’s word is.”

Newton says the idea to begin a church service started when the new recreation room opened earlier this year. Recently he’s had several pastors call him, wanting to be a part of the program.

REC lasts about an hour long and attendance at the services is voluntary; inmates receive no extra credit or time cuts for participating.

With Level 6 felony offenders now being housed for longer sentence periods in county jails, Newton says inmates who could go to church services in the state correction system were no longer offered them. The jail church program is put on without any state funding, Newton says, but with volunteers conducting the services there is no extra cost to the Sheriff’s Department.

That also means there is no mandate on how the services will be conducted. Starting off, local pastors Jeff Carrell, Worley Newsome and Bobby Kemp take turns presenting the message, preceded by a short worship and praise session led by local music ministers. Baptisms can also be held in the rec room.

“It’s kind of up to us,” Newton says. “I want to bring other churches in here, as this thing gets bigger. It’s non-denominational, basically. I’ve told them all that they’re not in here to be a denominational church program. It is for one thing – to preach the Bible, talk about Jesus Christ and stay on topic with those things.

“Again, we want to give people something to believe in, something that they’ve never had outside of here. Something that, when they do get out of here, they want to know that we’ll give them the resources and know that Jesus does love them, and they were put here for a reason, and it wasn’t to be in jail.”

At the May 2 service, jail guards, additional law enforcement officers, and dignitaries lined the rec room’s walls including Newton, Huntington County Commissioner Tom Wall, Huntington County councilmen Ron Kline and Terry Miller and Huntington Police Chief Chad Hacker.

Jeff Carrell, pastor of The Awakening Community Church, served as the minister of the first service, and did not sugar-coat his words about why the women were there.

“When we were in school, and the teacher said, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ We probably didn’t say, ‘I cannot wait to go to jail!’” Carrell told them, eliciting some laughs and nodding of heads from the congregation. “Let’s be honest. I’ve been coming here four or five years, but I get to walk out. So, I know that wasn’t what you wanted to be. So, what happened? That’s what we’re going to talk about today.”

He was there to offer them hope, in God. For some of the women, it was the first time they heard the gospel; for others, it was a reaffirmation of the path they need to take.

“You were created by God, and God doesn’t create junk … You have a DNA that nobody else has. God created you very special,” Carrell said. “That means – it says in the scripture – that he formed us. But before he formed us, he knew us. ‘Knew’ means, in Hebrew, that he has a plan for your life.”

Reaction during the first service was palpable, with many of the women moved to tears by the music and the message. Several shook their heads in agreement, while others stood silently in respect or raised their hands in worship. For Nevil, it was the ray of hope piercing through a dark period of her life.

“I’m coming back every time that we’re offered it,” she says, smiling through her own emotions.

Newton says in the few weeks since REC began he has received a lot of positive feedback, and not just from those in the community.

“It’s been very well received. The department has gotten nothing but kudos and accolades from family members,” he reports. “It’s something for them to lean on, instead of just despair and depression. Jail is a very depressing place. Sometimes people just need something to believe in and someone to believe in.”

The Huntington County Jail also offers other programs for inmates, including substance abuse therapy from the Bowen Center for females, Moms in Prayer, life skills for females and substance abuse programs for male inmates through the Indiana Dream Center. Both males and females can also participate every week in separated group Bible study classes.

“I’m really excited about this. I really hope and I do pray that what we’re going to start here does make a difference,” Newton adds. “I really want to see some of these people not come back to our jail, realize these services that we are providing are for a reason and take advantage of it once they get out. But at the end of the day, I can give them all the tools to make a better life, but it’s going to be up to them on how they choose to use it. You can’t force people to be good.”