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We had the privilege last night to lead worship at Leath Correctional Institute.  It’s one of the South Carolina women’s prisons that is stationed here in Greenwood.  For many of our band, this was the first experience like this.

And it was one of the most memorable times of leading worship I have ever experienced.

We led the “Knowing Jesus” presentation and I did a sermonette towards the end.  It was intended to be a mere couple of minutes, but they were giving me too much response for me not to go on a little bit longer.

We originally were supposed to go Wednesday night, but the storm kicked us out because they didn’t want 200 inmates in an open room if the power went out.  When I told the workers that it’s all good and we were there to serve them, they said that was a unique attitude.  Many that come into the prison to minister or to help have shown a little arrogance.  That’s just not so wonderful to hear.  So we decided to really change the vibe in there as much as we could.

Many people claim what we saw last night was “jailhouse religion” that is just an escape from reality. It is a crutch to get through. It is a safe assurance that won’t last longer until they get back on the streets.

The reality?  Some of their spiritual maturity in prison makes so many of ours seem shallow and empty outside these walls.  Shame on us who walk in spiritual and physical freedom and yet never live a life that beams gratitude.

Here are just some of the highlights from the evening:

  • Authentic worship.  There’s just a difference when you sing about grace with those who embrace it versus those who think they don’t need it.  To sing lines such as “just to hear you say that all my sins are forgiven” take on a new weight in that moment.  The words of the gospels were so rich in there that night and those ladies sang those words like they had been singing them their entire life even though they were hearing them for the first time.  Responsive.  Engaged.  Authentic.  Refreshing.
  • Visiting Jesus.  Matthew 25:39And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” 40And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”  Christ is very clear.  Prisoners must deal with governing justice, but the church must not deny them the gospel.
  • The Word speaks.  Once again, these ladies had never heard any of these songs, but they are all written from the Word.  It was as if many of them knew the songs very well.  Interestingly enough, I was expecting certain songs to be very special, and they were, but there were also a few surprises.  “It Is Written” and “Woe to You” had the most legit, rowdy responses of any of them.  Now, both of those songs are a little more intense musically, but tears were being shed during these songs.  It was almost as if they needed those songs to compose a reply to Satan and to legalistic religious folk.
  • Our only difference is I didn’t get caught.  You would think leading worship to female inmates would be intimidating.  Knowing some of the stories of the murderers a few feet away from me should make that moment different, and yet it did not.  They got caught and punished for their sin, it’s by the grace of God my sins never led me to jail.  James 2:10 makes it clear – if you stumble in one point of the Law, you are guilty of it all!
  • New church prospects.  After the warm reception as our night concluded, the first audible thing we heard from one lady was as she was walking out the door in a single-file line with guards in the front and at the back, “I’m getting out at Christmas time – you’ll be seeing me at your church very soon!”  Out of any comments I would want to receive, I couldn’t think of a better one to hear.  That this lady (and 3 others who made similar comments concerning upcoming release dates) would feel like we love her and she would be accepted at our church makes me feel like we were on to something.  I can’t wait to see her, give her a hug, welcome her into the family, and walk alongside her to continue her discipleship.  She’s no different than me.  She was a sinner changed into a saint by the grace of Jesus!
  • 500 more.  As we packed up last night, some staff members who usually don’t hang around for events like these hung around.  They mainly did because of the manner in which our band handled themselves around the prison staff during setup.  While we were ecstatic about that night, one staff members told us that they can only have 200 ladies in there at once for security purposes, but there are 500 other ladies who need to hear that.  Looks like we are just getting started.
Travis Agnew is a Christian, husband, father, pastor, author, blogger, and religion instructor.