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Chaplain’s prison ministry ‘A task I was destined to do’

PELZER, S.C. (BP) – Larry Epps became chaplain of the Perry Correctional Institution in January 2015 after God had given him a passion to reach and serve the incarcerated. Perry is a high-security institution that houses some of the most violent offenders in South Carolina.

“Essentially, I live there with those guys six days a week,” Epps said. “I go to lunch with them, and I’m in the trenches with them.”

As a Southern Baptist chaplain endorsed by the North American Mission Board, Epps provides counsel, helping inmates with their emotional and relational well-being. Ultimately, though, he aims to point them to the God who so radically changed his own life.

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Chaplain Larry Epps and his wife Debra

“I wasn’t taught about Christ as a child, and my dad was an angry alcoholic,” Epps said. “I often got angry as a kid and as a young adult. I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol and just living a reckless and out of control lifestyle.”

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A serious motorcycle accident in 1989 initiated a series of events that led him to commit his life to Jesus. When he was in the hospital, he first started to sense the presence of God in his life, and though the accident likely should have led to long-term paralysis, Epps eventually walked out of the hospital.

A couple of years later, a friend and coworker named Aaron Gamble persistently shared the Gospel with him, telling him the story of the Bible from Adam in Genesis through the time of Christ in the New Testament.

“At first, I was angry with Aaron, but I also sensed it was true,” Epps said. “Then, on January 15, 1991, at 9:30 in the morning, he led me to Christ in the front seat of his Volvo.”

Several times on his ride home from work, he had to stop because of the tears that filled his eyes. Once he got home, he backed his truck to the front door and started loading everything from his previous lifestyle that he knew should not be a part of his life.

“It was a complete 180, and really, I’ve just never been the same. All the drugs and alcohol and stuff I’d been experimenting with were just gone,” Epps said. “Looking back, after I became involved in nursing, what happened was impossible, medically impossible. I should have experienced withdrawals, at least, if not a number of other symptoms.”

Epps became a fervent evangelist after his conversion, then God placed prison ministry on his heart. Eventually, he met R.B. Revis, Jr., a minister to prisoners, who would become Epps’ mentor.

“I became his protégé, and he became like a father to me,” Epps said. “I saw the way he loved the inmates and ministered to them. I see so much of his influence in my ministry today.”

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For several years, prison ministry was a weekend endeavor during his career in nursing. A winding road led him to chaplaincy after he entered the Army National Guard as a nurse following 9/11.

While with his battalion, Epps became the de facto chaplain, realized that he needed more training, went to seminary to earn a degree in pastoral counseling and received chaplaincy training from the Army.

The door to military chaplaincy closed, and he started looking for other opportunities.

“I saw the job at Perry come open, and I was able to apply and earn the job,” Epps said. “It felt like coming home, like something I was destined to do.”

As he started ministering at Perry, he met inmates who practiced religions he had never heard of before. Epps, through his relationship with Christ, is able to display a steady, consistent love toward all that he meets and serves.

Many who see Epps’s Christ-like love and hear his testimony of coming to faith decide that they want to be filled with the same love. So they repent and believe the Gospel.

“The one thing that I think separates a Christian is our ability to love those that others believe are unlovable,” Epps said. “The people who approach me with hatred, I approach them with love, grace and mercy. Over the course of time, that consistent message changed peoples’ lives.”

Epps and his wife Debra are members or Rock Springs Baptist Church in Easley, S.C., the church that ordained Epps for chaplaincy ministry.