The song is called “Chain Breaker” and its refrain is: “If you’ve got pain, He’s a pain taker. If you feel lost, He’s a way maker. If you need freedom or saving, He’s a prison-shaking Savior. If you got chains, He’s a chain breaker.”
Those lyrics resonated this past October as they echoed throughout the gym at the North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City, Iowa, where more than 40 inmates and 20 outside volunteers from churches across Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota took part in Brothers in Blue (BiB). The four-day program offered speakers, worship, prayers, personal sharing and meditation to help bring inmates into closer connection with the gospel and, in some cases, introduce them to Christianity.
By the conclusion of day three, BiB participant Patrill Ellis couldn’t contain his exuberance. “I hear that song starting and it does something to me I can’t explain,” said Ellis, who’s acclaimed by more than a few of his fellow BiB as the best singer at the Rockwell prison. “I love what that song is about and it’s about love. That’s what this whole thing (BiB) has been about. A lot of us haven’t felt or known about love like that in a long time.”
That heretofore unknown love is what leaves a powerful impression in the more than 15 years BiB has been bringing an ecumenical Christian ministry biannually to the Rockwell prison and the Fort Dodge (Iowa) Correctional Facility. The project has roots in the 1970s when Lutheran pastors looked at modeling a prison ministry after such retreats as Cursillo in Roman Catholicism and its offshoots, Via de Cristo in Lutheranism or Walk to Emmaus in the Methodist church.
Paul Stone, pastor of Church of the Damascus Road at the two prisons, first participated in a BiB weekend in 1996 and now coordinates the events at the Rockwell and Fort Dodge prisons.
BiB revolves around speakers who share personal testimonies about their spiritual journeys through a progression of preassigned topics. After each speaker, inmates discuss how the talk resonated in their lives, opening up about their hopes, fears and dreams.
Punctuated by prayer, song and chapel services with Scripture readings and communion, BiB is, for inmates like Ryan Newson, the first church experience the men have had in years. Newson started coming to services at Church of the Damascus Road in Rockwell in 2016 and was baptized July 14. He’s now what Stone calls “an all-star” member of the congregation council.
“I never had God or Jesus in my life before getting [to prison],” said Newson, who at presstime had a parole hearing in December. “Now I can’t imagine my life without him. I’ve got hope for when I get beyond these walls. And if that doesn’t happen in December and I’m still here, well, everything happens for a reason. I have something else to learn.
“But more than anything, I’ve seen and I’ve been given love. At Brothers in Blue, people genuinely care about me. They call me by my first name. For a lot of us, it’s been a long time since we’ve had anything like that happen.”
‘Come and see’
Some BiB participants have been brought up in the faith but are coming to sharper-drawn conclusions about their worth in God’s eyes.
“I’ve been to Bible camps before,” Bradley Heinold said. “But nothing with this level of fellowship. Our testimonies have been incredibly moving. There are a lot of opinions out there—‘Oh, you came out of prison, what good can come from a criminal?’ Or, ‘Once a criminal, always a criminal.’ But I think we all know that we have a capacity for change. This weekend is reminding us that God’s love is unchanging for us. We can change to meet it.”
Throughout the weekend, the inmates going through BiB are shepherded by volunteers and by a corps of inmates who have previously gone through the program. This group, called the palanca (Spanish for “lever”), prays over the speakers and also handles the dozens of prayer requests that hourly fill a box located at the makeshift altar.
“We’re prayer warriors,” said palanca Jason Jones, who first did BiB in 2014. “Every inmate here is building a foundation for their relationship with Christ and we are set to pray as hard as we can about that foundation. It feels good to serve, no doubt. But there’s some part of me that wishes I could go through it all over again.”
That sentiment is a consensus among most of the palanca and, for the volunteers who circle BiB weekends on their calendars, the anticipation is tantamount to Christmas.
“By Sunday a lot of us say the same thing, ‘I don’t want to leave,’ ” said Larry Lubinus, a member of Trinity, a Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod congregation in Boone, Iowa, who has volunteered for more than 40 BiB events. “We just love coming in here and watching as these guys are energized by the saving grace of Jesus Christ.”
As the weekend progresses, the singing gets louder, the prayers more frequent and more direct. Men are praying not so much for themselves anymore, but for their families, for people on the outside, for the volunteers.
By the end of the retreat some of the men will seek baptism or renew their baptismal vows.
“To help these guys see the presence of Christ in their midst, in their hearts,” Stone said, “it does us on the other side a lot of good too.”
Tom Kellen, a member of Cornerstone Christian Church in Redwood Falls, Minn., who served as the lay rector for the retreat, said sending the participants back out into their real world can be a daunting proposition, but the energy generated at BiB fires the inmates with joy and spiritual gifts the volunteers hope are sustaining.
“I know I have friends who believe in me,” Newson said. “I have a committed core of people I’ve shared this with. This has been a beautiful period of freedom for us. We know we’re going back to our real world inside these walls, but we go back with a knowledge that it’s about him, not us.”
As one chapel session ended, Marv Goodyk, a lay leader from a Christian Reformed church in Sully, Iowa, stood to comment briefly on a passage that had just been read from the Gospel of John.
“ ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ ” Goodyk said, repeating the words of Nathanael in the Scripture, who was incredulous that Jesus could come from such a place. “People judge others based on their backgrounds, where they’ve come from, not knowing anything else about us. They ask, ‘Just what good can come out of North Central Correctional Facility?’ And my answer is the same as Philip’s to Nathanael: ‘Come and see.’ ”
Patrill Ellis, who also stood to speak on the Gospel, reminded his fellow participants that they can change—they, too, are something to see.
“We can make a change,” Ellis said. “People can see something great come out of us, out of this place. It meant to me that there is hope, if only we are willing to see it. Let people come and see that.”