SYLACAUGA, Ala. (BP)–Rather than bringing church to inmates at a nearby correctional facility, one Alabama church is bringing the inmates to church — thanks to the vision of one very unconventional 92-year-old man, Bloise Zeigler.
Zeigler, mayor of Oak Grove in Talladega County for 20 years until his retirement at age 87, has been a member of First Baptist Church in Sylacauga since 1948 -— his entire Christian life. As mayor, he often utilized free work crew labor, which led to his empathy for the incarcerated.
“I’ve just got a compassion for these fellas,” Zeigler said. “Some of them in there aren’t bad at all, they just made a mistake.”
First Baptist’s pastor, Keith Pugh, said Zeigler initiated the move to involve inmates from the Childersburg Community Work Center in church activities in December 2003. “We put on a dinner theatre each Christmas, and Mr. Bloise … thought we should put on a special performance for some of the prisoners he used to work with,” Pugh recounted.
It might seem that such a prisoner fieldtrip would require countless bureaucratic hoops to maneuver, but Pugh said it just wasn’t so. “There hasn’t been any red tape,” Pugh said. “Mr. Bloise and I just went down to see the warden and told him what we were thinking. We told him we would just want to help complement the work camp’s own spiritual programs and that we’d facilitate everything. The rest is history.”
“The rest” now includes once-a-month chartered buses full of prisoners headed for First Baptist for Sunday services. The same vehicles return to the work camp full of human beings. Just ask 46-year-old inmate Tim Stone.
“That’s the good part about it because sometimes when a man’s been incarcerated, no matter what you’ve done, you feel alone,” Stone said. “You feel like people, even your family, don’t want to have anything to do with you, like now you’re just a number or something.”
But inside the church, and especially around Zeigler, Stone and the others light up the room -— not with their white Department of Corrections jumpsuits but with their smiles. They are treated as guests; all awkwardness has long vanished since the church’s unconventional prison ministry began a year and a half ago.
“This has given me a sense of purpose, a sense that at least someone out there cares for me,” Stone said. “That gives you a sense of hope that, no matter what you may have done, you can become a better person.
“And these people don’t even know me,” Stone added, “but they’re taking their time to give me something, and not just a free meal after the service but something to feed your spirit.
“It’s something you can learn from so that when you get out, you won’t go back to prison. I’m born-again. It’s been seven months since I’ve been saved, so I’m incredibly thankful for any chance to get out and fellowship with other Christians.”
The only secret to winning a prisoner’s soul, Zeigler said, is to treat it like any other -— to treat inmates like people.
“I am convinced if you put a fella in there, you can’t punish him enough in five, 10, 15 or 20 years to make him feel like he can make it when he gets out if he thinks the world is still against him,” Zeigler said. “If he thinks that way, he doesn’t stand much of a chance to make it.”
Zeigler has ridden to and from the prison every time the church has sent a bus, amid his other community activities that include District 32 representative in the nonprofit Alabama Silver-Haired Legislature, a member of a committee working to solve the Anniston Army Depot’s chemical weapons removal problems, and proprietor of a 24-acre Christmas tree farm.
He gets a multitude of letters from prisoners and former prisoners expressing gratitude, often quoting Scripture to him by heart. Several inmates who have been released still attend First Baptist, and one is going into the ministry.
“Some of those guys,” Zeigler said, “really witness to me, they really do.”
Jeremy Dale Henderson is a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist, online at www.thealabamabaptist.org.