Pandemic Pivot: Oklahoma Prison Ministry Victories Prompt Celebration
By Michelle D. Williams
Graduation season is here. COVID-19 has forced adjustments to ceremonies and celebrations. The pandemic, however, has not stopped Fresh Start Community Church in Moore, Oklahoma, from celebrating with their graduates—inmates at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility. Peggy Choate, pastor of the church’s Celebrate Recovery ministry, is mailing certificates and encouragement letters to her graduates.
The ministry’s graduates are men and women who have finished the program while incarcerated. “We started at Mabel Basset with about 100 women. The officials eventually opened it up to the full yard, that is medium- and maximum-security inmates,” Mabel shares. “Now we take Celebrate Recovery in seven men’s prisons and three women’s prisons.” In 2019, 250 women graduated from the correctional facilities’ program.
Fresh Start has been involved in prison ministry since 2009. The ministry began picking up inmates during 2010 from Oklahoma Community Corrections on Tuesday evenings. They ate dinner together, worshipped, and engaged in both small and big group discussions before being taken back to the facility. Celebrate Recovery at Fresh Start is a church-wide ministry that is fully supported. The senior pastor and pastoral staff minister regularly in the prisons. Senior adults cook meals and serve inmates at the Tuesday evening meetings. Formerly incarcerated individuals are members of the congregation. Fresh Start is not just the name of the ministry. It serves as a welcome sign for all those who desire.
Sixteen volunteers were going into the prisons every week pre-pandemic. Now prisons are locked down, allowing no visitors. “It’s hard on us and the inmates,” Peggy laments. “We send letters every week. We connect with the chaplains. We pray.”
The fruit of faithful ministry offered over time is evident during COVID-19. Choate is amazed by the number of letters that pour in weekly from inmates. Testimonies and updates fill the letters’ contents. Inmates are looking for human connection as they currently experience quarantine that isolates them.
Inmates often pen thank you letters to Fresh Start for their support, encouragement, and candor. “It is amazing to watch God transform lives,” Choate shares. “I see them come into the program broken, beaten up, and filled with shame. Then, I watch Jesus Christ heal them. I marvel as they forgive themselves. I watch the light come on in their eyes. So many have never had somebody really care about them. We are not using them. We don’t want anything from them. We just want them to feel the love of Jesus and know that we love them, as well.”
Fresh Start’s Celebrate Recovery program has a unique feature in that all twenty-eight prison programs are run by inmates. They are the ministry leaders. These inmates go through the program where they are trained to lead. One inmate had been a ministry leader for four years at Mabel Bassett before being transferred to a lesser-security prison. “The lessons learned in Celebrate Recovery helped me to embrace this season of change in my life,” she wrote in a letter to Choate.
The ministry is not ashamed of the fact that Jesus Christ is the center of all redemption stories. Leaders share openly about their own brokenness, building trust through vulnerability and consistency. Ministry volunteers show up week-after-week providing love, and hope for people that society often forgets. “By working with inmates and Celebrate Recovery—you learn to love people unconditionally and celebrate where they are at in life in this moment,” Peggy rejoices.
Help churches like these respond to urgent needs in their communities as a result of COVID-19:
Rev. Michelle D. Williams is the former dean of students at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a graduate of the Anderson University School of Theology and Christian Ministry. She is a writer, speaker, and blogger at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.
*Feature (top) photo: Fresh Start’s prison ministry team, pre-pandemic.