More than 65 female inmates were baptized on the grounds of the Women’s Homestead Corrections Institute during a special service in August at Church by the Glades’ Prison Campus in Florida City. Initiated in January, the Prison Campus is bringing change to a community of women who attend services weekly at the Homestead facility, and a second prison campus was opened in the Dade Correctional Institution for Men in September.
“While this is a limited environment, we serve an unlimited God,” said Past David Hughes, senior pastor of Church by the Glades, located in Coral Springs.
Sending a core team of volunteers down to the Homestead facility every Tuesday and Wednesday evening, Church by the Glades views the prison facility as a satellite campus and broadcasts its Sunday service message through an online video stream that allows family members and friends to view the exact same service the inmates experience each week.
Why establish a prison campus?
Pastor Hughes said Jesus calls us to reach out to the least of these and points to Matthew 25 when “the King will say to those on his right . . . I was in prison, and you visited me.”
This creative approach is nothing new to Church by the Glades, which is described on the church website as a “hyper creative and fully charged church where no perfect people are allowed.” This is just another way “we are leveraging our creativity to ‘become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some’ ” (1 Corinthians 9:22), said Hughes.
Because their families can watch the same service the inmates see, it gives them a touch point that brings about community. They can talk about the worship or what they are learning in the sermon in letters and phone calls with family members and they have commonality based on God’s word, explained Kory Cassell, the Church by the Glades pastor who oversees the prison campuses.
“What’s amazing is that we’ve had people visit Church by the Glades in Coral Springs because the invite came from their daughter in prison” said Cassell.
Opening a prison campus is a big commitment as volunteers, who are trained and screened, travel the 65-mile journey twice a week to act as hosts and prayer partners at the prison campuses. They leave at 4 in the afternoon and don’t come back until 11 p.m.
But according to Cassell, their efforts have brought about growth. “During the first week we had about 100 women attend services; now there are just under 300 women, which is almost half of the 700 women housed at the correctional facility,” he said. At the men’s facility where they held their first services in September, there are more than 1,700 inmates.
The baptism service came about after a teaching on the subject when many women asked to be baptized. “It took four or five months to get permission to conduct the service,” said Cassell. “All of the women had to submit an application to be baptized, and they all did it one by one.”
Loved back to life
The campus also provides weekly small group sessions. One of the female inmates who attended the study wrote, “Thank you for bringing my Faith back to me! Your church loved me back to life. I am eternally grateful!”
While several Christian ministries conduct services and outreach programs in the correctional facilities, what makes Church by the Glades a campus and not just a program is this ongoing commitment. “They have the exact same experience on the prison campus that people receive at any satellite campus,” asserts Cassell. In addition to a campus pastor, they have volunteer ushers, greeters, counselors, live announcements and prayer partners who come up to the front to pray with them at the end of the service.
“When they asked us when we were coming back and we told them this was their church and we’d be there every week, they were stoked,” Cassell replied.
Pastor Hughes agreed, “We didn’t want to make them a project. We are honored to have them as part of our church family.”
Level at the foot of the cross
Tiffani Dhooge, the Homestead campus director who volunteers each week, said that when she first went down to volunteer she was responding to the need.
“As a social worker, this population did not scare me, but I was concerned about how we were going to do this long term and that we might have difficulty finding volunteers. I even heard one person make the comment, ‘I’m not going to get shanked.’ After all, this is a maximum security prison with people who have killed.” But Dhooge admitted, “The first thing that struck me was how normal, friendly and comfortable these women were, and when the music started, I became aware that many of these women knew the words to these songs and they worshipped with such complete and total abandon.”
When one women asked for prayer, Dhooge she realized some of these women may never be released from the prison. “Their whole life’s confines are here in this prison. Most have made some bad choices they will always regret, but does that mean that she can’t worship?”
She added, “When I stand should to shoulder with these women, God sees no differences. We are all level at the foot of the cross, and I think, ‘There but for God’s grace go I.’ ”
The Prison Campus services are streamed online at www.churchinsidefl.com on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m. For more information, visit cbglades.com.
For more articles by Shelly Pond, please visit goodnewsfl.org/author/shelly/