First United Methodist church reaches out to those behind bars

By Nickolaus Hines
Opelika Observer

Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)” echoed off of the cinderblock walls of the Lee County Detention Center library.
“Amazing Grace/How sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me.”
Nearly 50 inmates in white prison attire followed the acoustic guitar, English horn, Cajun box drum and voices of 18 volunteers from First United Methodist Church of Opelika to fill the musty air with song.
Pastor Scott Kaak stood in front of a six foot, rough-hewn wooden cross with his camouflage bound Bible and LCDC Easter Service program notes. Kaak and the other volunteers spoke to more than 400 inmates over the course of the day. No more than 50 inmates at a time sat in the metal fold–up chairs for the hour–long service. Gum–chewing prison guards lined the back of the room. A guard the size of an NFL linebacker stood in the middle of the two sections of chairs, watching the inmates and humming along with the hymns.
Kaak has been giving Easter and Christmas church services and seven-minute weekly services at LCDC for several years, and First United Methodist has been visiting inmates at the county jail for nearly 40 years.
“Recidivism rates are very high, but when you add a spiritual component to it, you have a lot less chance of people coming back in,” Kaak said. “Some of them come there for the free piece of candy and to get out of their cell, but I think a lot of them listen. I’m planting seeds, you never know.”
Alabama has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation,  64 percent higher than the national average, according to the National Institute of Corrections.
Clayton Garner was facing time in prison after his sixth DUI conviction. While he waited for his transfer from LCDC, he attended Kaak’s jail sermons. Garner wasn’t raised religiously in  Beulah, 20 miles away from his jail cell. He said he wasn’t searching for religion at Kaak’s service; he just wanted to get out of his cell.
“It was about the only good thing going on in there,” Garner said. “Everything else ain’t no good. Cussing and hollering and fighting and just a lot of mess. It ain’t just something you want to enjoy.”
He had a radio at LCDC, and during Christmas time he heard a religious song on a secular radio station about Jesus taking man’s sin.
“Basically, the way I interpreted it was, he could take all of our mess and give us a new life,” Garner said. “And I asked for that.”
Garner said he started to see jail with new eyes. Bibles were everywhere: holding up TVs, propping up pillows. He wanted to learn more about religion, and read the Bible and listened to Kaak’s sermons in a way he hadn’t before.
Garner never went to prison. Religion helped him through his time in jail, and when he got out, he wanted to help others who were going through the same experiences he had.
His answer was Waymon Johnson, founding pastor of New Birth Ministries.
Johnson started New Birth Ministries in 2002 to help former inmates leave their past behind them and create new lives through a 12-month program. Johnson had been in and out of jail for years before he realized he needed to change. He spent two years at His Place in Opelika, an organization similar to what New Birth Ministries has become.
Johnson said he saw first–hand how the justice system had failed to change him, and how His Place had given him a new perspective and a new way to live that kept him away from drugs and jail. Being locked behinds bars hadn’t stopped his addictions. The chaos that surrounded Johnson on the streets mirrored that of jail, but the peace that surrounded Johnson at His Place reflected the life that he wanted to live.
In a carpentry shop near historic downtown Opelika, pastors Johnson and Garner work together to teach 30 men at a time how to live again. They have both fought through the same struggles as the people they help. They have both changed their lives through Biblical teachings they now pass on to others. Most importantly, they have both stayed away from the cinderblock walls and white–washed uniforms of jail and the substances that put them there.
“The court system and Christianity, they don’t want to tie that stuff together, but man, if nothing else is working, it’s time for somebody to open their eyes,” Johnson said. “All this other stuff is just not working. People are going to jail 28 days or 30 days and people are paying thousands and thousands of dollars, then they are coming and doing the exact same thing. Somebody’s got to wake up.”
Alabama can fix the overpopulation in jails and prisons by investing in the expansion of organizations like New Birth Ministries and His Place, and Christians aren’t the only people who can find value in these programs, Johnson said.
A family member of a man with whom Johnson had been working followed up with New Birth Ministries after he saw a change in the lifestyle of his brother. Johnson had helped the former inmate leave the life of crime he had been living, and helped him break away from his addiction to drugs and alcohol.
“When his brother changed, he said, ‘Man, there’s got to be something good over there,’” Johnson remembered the man telling him.
Johnson and Garner suggest giving convicted criminals an option: Go to prison, or complete a program like the one at New Birth Ministries. “That is what breaks down crime,” Johnson said. “People with businesses that don’t even go to church, their life will ease up. They won’t have to worry about anybody taking their stuff.”
New Birth Ministries has connections with employers for graduates of their program. Even some businesses that don’t hire people with felonies will make exceptions for people connected with the ministry, Johnson said.
“What I think would really help decrease people going to prison or returning to prison, instead of us building bigger jails, we need to be building places like what we’ve got,” Johnson said. “We can only take so many, but if people get out and build these big jails and they’re overcrowded, why can’t we just take some of that money and build something to give people some hope. That’s giving the person the opportunity to really change instead of going to prison, spending ten years, coming right back out and wind up going right back in.”
Amazing Grace ended. An inmate with neck tattoos sitting near the back of the room lowered his program from his face; his eyes were red with tears he had wiped away during the song.
The guards lined the prisoners up to leave, starting with the back row. The First United Methodist volunteers stood side by side in the hallway. They handed out little bags  of candy and shook each inmate’s hand.
Each inmate smiled at the volunteers as they passed them, some half–heartedly, but each said “God bless you,” and thanked Kaak for his continued commitment at the jail.
A new group of inmates filed into the jail library from the back door, filling the front seats first. Kaak and the other volunteers took their places at the front of the room, and began another service.