LOMPOC, Calif. (BP)–Strains from the chorus of “Low in the Grave He Lay” swell from the packed pews in the chapel and pass through the stained glass windows to the prison courtyard outside.
It is Easter morning at the U.S. Penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif. As the singing ends, Michael Cook steps to the platform and begins his sermon.
“Without the resurrection,” he intones, “the gospel is just a fable. Without the resurrection, Jesus is still dead and we are without a Savior and without forgiveness.
“Without the resurrection, life is a dead end.”
An occasional “amen” or “that’s right” punctuates his delivery as Cook drives each point home, searching for the words that will lead inmates to trust Christ a little more today than yesterday.
“This is a macho, highly defensive environment,” Cook explains. “You can show anger, but not sorrow or sadness … and you have to be careful how you show kindness. People with predatory personalities will prey on those who show any perceived weakness.”
That’s why chapel is a true sanctuary within the prison system. “This is perhaps the only place where men can be openly kind and generous without fear of reprisal.”
Cook understands the system. For 14 of his 22 years in law enforcement he was a deputy sheriff patrolman.
Later, as pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, Oskaloosa, Kan., a student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and correctional officer at U.S. Penitentiary-Leavenworth, he sensed a call to chaplaincy. After receiving his endorsement from the Home Mission Board’s chaplain’s commission, he became one of the first federal correctional officers to cross-train into federal prison chaplaincy — from incarcerating prisoners to being their spiritual adviser.
Today as supervisory chaplain at the U.S. Penitentiary at Lompoc, he and two assistants — a Catholic and a Muslim — oversee the needs of two dozen faith groups at the only maximum security federal penitentiary on the West Coast.
Rick Pinion is typical of some inmates who have spent more time inside prison walls than outside them.
Now serving his third term at Lompoc, he has been on the streets just four and a half months since his first arrest in 1976.
But this time, other inmates began witnessing to him. At first he rejected their overtures and saw no need to make a change.
“Then there came a point in my life when I was in tremendous emotional pain because I had lost all hope for any kind of happiness,” he says. “One morning during this time I awoke with an extreme headache. I sat up in bed and did what I had been avoiding — I asked God to come into my life. The headache left and I started looking for Chaplain Cook.”
That Sunday morning, Pinion made a public commitment to Christ. Soon afterward, Cook baptized him into the membership of First Southern Baptist Church of Lompoc.
Larry Smith, another inmate, attended Methodist and Pentecostal churches as a young boy, “just to keep mom happy,” he says.
Like Pinion, he wasn’t looking for Christ at Lompoc until inmates who were involved in Bible studies and worship services conducted through the chaplain’s office began witnessing to him.
Cook now teaches Smith and other new Christian inmates how to share their faith in the prison community.
Cook’s ministry is enhanced because he has the support of his wife, Cindy, and his church, First Southern in Lompoc. Cindy and other volunteers from the church teach Bible studies on Sundays and Thursdays.
J.T. Reed, pastor of the church, supports the way Cook has involved the congregation in his ministry.
“This outreach gives our members an opportunity to see the gospel at work in the hardest of situations,” he says.
“Michael baptized eight men last Sunday at the prison, and we accepted all of them into our membership. That brings our total prison membership to about 30.”
Reed believes having inmates on the church roll will give inmates a sense of belonging that is usually denied them while incarcerated. And having regular visits from church members gives them role models as they rebuild their lives.
“When these men complete their time, they will be able to move anywhere in the nation and have their church membership transferred with them,” he says. “I pray this will be part of their rehabilitation as a Southern Baptist church somewhere helps assimilate them back into society.”
God can use more Southern Baptist pastors and laypeople in prisons and jails across the nation, Cook says. Here is some advice he offers — to work in a prison or jail setting, you must:
1) Have a non-judgmental attitude. If you want to judge, become a judge — not a prison minister. Jesus said that he came not to judge, but to seek and save those who are lost.
2) Be a proficient listener. Inmates have hurt people because they were first hurt by someone else. Listen to them and love them in their pain.
3) Have a desire to see people saved. Be true to the gospel and love and respect your inmate congregation. Then you’ll be amazed at how receptive the are to Jesus and to you.
4) Be an emotionally healthy and stable person. Working in an institutional setting is an emotionally draining experience. You must be prepared to experience a wide range of emotions in those to whom you minister, as well as within yourself.
5) Have an appreciation for the criminal justice system. Prisons and jails provide for the security of society and the rehabilitation of its offenders. To disrespect the role of the system is to be at odds with your calling.
6) Be able to function in a potentially dangerous environment. Taking calculated risks is part of working in any law enforcement setting. God?given courage to face your fears is one indication that God has called you to minister to inmates.