Wednesday, August 19, 2015
John 3:16 Marketing Network Visits Wakulla Correctional Institute
Someday when I stand before God and give an accounting for all the good and bad things I’ve done, I believe one thing that will please God greatly will be my visit to the Wakulla Correctional Institute yesterday. As anyone who follows our blog and tweets knows, authors of the John 3:16 Marketing Network have donated a hundred books this last year for prisoners to read and critique. When Steve Fox, the chaplain, said they could arrange for me to visit the prison, I jumped at the opportunity.
After spending a fortune this last month on car repairs, I felt comfortable driving my old minivan on the two and a half hour trek from Gainesville to Tallahassee. I was glad I had my trusty GPS—Wakulla Correctional is out in the backcountry where I tend to get lost.
When I arrived, I found the prison to be much larger than I expected, housing about 400 prisoners. Barbwire fence surrounded the complex and old, bunker style buildings imparted the sterilized feeling of institutionalized living.
I have been to prisons before as a court reporter and once as a musician, but whenever I go back, the coldness seeps under my skin again. I think we all tend to forget that some men (and women) enter and never leave. They live their lives secluded behind a steel fence with very little to no outside contact with the world. They have no computers and no phones. I suppose they have TV’s, but I got the impression they are completely isolated from the outside world. They have solar radios a Christian ministry paid for (about 150 that they can check out) but it gets just one station — a Christian radio station. Actually, I don’t think they even have TV’s.
Many of them have jobs inside the prison, but for some of these guys, their “entertainment” now centers on our books.
When I arrived, Steve and Brenda, his wife, met me in the parking lot — and God was already at work. It started pouring soon after, so we beat the rain by less than a minute. Since they don’t allow purses or cameras or bags, all I could take inside was my driver’s license—which I promptly handed over to the guard at the door. Then you must remove your shoes and walk through a metal detector. You are allowed to bring in one bottle of unopened water.
Once inside, we went back to Steve’s office next to the chapel. After a few more introductions and some instructions, we went in a side room off the chapel. I walked into a large room and about fifty guys in blue prison uniforms sat in chairs waiting for me. Three chairs had been placed at the front with a table, so Steve sat in one and I sat in another, and Brenda sat beside the volunteer who has helped with copying the reviews and getting them to me via email.
Just to share a little tidbit about myself, for years, from grammar school forward, I struggled with public speaking, but God has miraculously delivered me from that fear since I started writing books. Talk about a deliverance —now I enjoy sharing God’s love and what He has done in my life. Rather than feeling afraid, I thanked God for the opportunity to visit the inmates.
The guys’ eyes lit up when they saw me enter the room. I was late arriving as it took me longer than the two hours travel time I had allotted.
The first question I asked was how many had read our books? Almost all of them raised their hands. I then shared with them how much their reviews meant and the encouragement we received from reading them. I told them how all of us (authors) were amazed at how articulate and well written their reviews were.
As I shared, I felt God among us, a connectedness that Christians experience when Jesus is present. While I have felt it many times in my life, it was especially powerful as I sat and talked with the inmates. The walls that separated us were gone. I knew beyond all doubt that God was ministering to these prisoners through our books.
For me to come and personally thank them for their reviews might be a highlight event for many all year. The men were mesmerized. Many looked astounded that our reviews meant that much. I don’t think they had a clue, even though Steve has told them. But hearing it directly from me as an author meant more than even Steve could express to them. The volunteer said some of these guys have no one that comes and visits them — ever! And for me to come and talk to them one-on-one was very special.
I told the men I wanted to connect their faces with the names with which I had become familiar, having read so many of their reviews. I asked those who were willing to tell me their name and what their favorite books were. We started with the guy who had read the most books — 89 books! After the third person, I realized I needed to take notes, so someone gave me a piece of paper and pen, and I started jotting down names so I could share with others later what they said.
I have listed here as many of the books as I can remember with links to Amazon. If you were to have a chat with these guys about their favorite books, these are the ones they would tell you to read.
After a while, I noticed other guys in the room jotting down things — like they wanted to jump up and get a book before someone else grabbed it. Steve had brought in all the books so they were sitting on a cart.
Steve later told me the men walk around with the books under their arms in between different activities. The volunteer said the prisoners take writing the reviews seriously. They will even share with other prisoners what they have written and ask, “Do you think this sounds okay?”
In addition to helping the inmates spiritually, we are also helping them to develop job skills for when they leave prison, and many of these guys will get out eventually. They can add “book reviewer” to their job resumes.
I was surprised when a couple of guys asked about my “Children of Dreams” book, like getting on a moped in a foreign country with someone I didn’t know. Was I scared? One guy had my book in his hand. I had no idea so many had read that book. It’s hard to imagine prisoners reading an adoption book written by a single woman who traveled around the world. Then I realized, these books are an escape for them. From time travel to world travel to inner healing travel, they are being delivered both physically and spiritually to a different place—one of healing, hope, and forgiveness.
I shared that their reviews are being read by thousands of people on the web as I post them to twitter and the John 3:16 blog, and that people then repost the tweets and share with others. The inmates don’t have access to the Internet so they were surprised to learn that their reviews are being read by so many bloggers and tweeters.
The men wanted to know how Christian authors joined the network — and I explained to them that authors ask to join and I screen them so that those who are in the network are sincere, dedicated Christians. Many asked, “Can we have one of the authors in the network to come see us each month?” Wouldn’t that be awesome if we could set that up?
At 3pm, we had to end because the prisoners had to be back for roll call, but I was able to shake their hands and encourage them as they left. Many wrote personal notes on a sheet of paper that I want to share here:
“Thank you for your time and help.” Booker T.
“Thank you for taking the time out. God Bless.” Clyde
“Keep writing! God is using you. God bless.” Michael
“Thank you so much for coming. I really enjoyed “Children of Dreams” and “Gatehaven.” Jeremy C.
“Thank all the authors for allowing us to read their books.” Paul
“Thanks for all the books.” Charlie
“Thank you so much. In my Christian walk, I’ve come to realize there are no coincidences, so this is truly all God’s plan.” Richard.
“Thank you for the opportunity to read good, wholesome material. God bless you all.” Stuart C.
“May the Lord bless your ministry and continue to inspire you in your writing.” Ronald P, with a smiley face.
“Thank you for believing in us and giving us this opportunity.” Bill C.
“I would love to see both book 2’s of Amanda Washington.” Clyde.
“Thank you, in Christ Jesus.” Jaxon.
I closing, I want to share one thing I said to them. I’ll paraphrase it here.
“I know you guys are in here for doing something wrong and are paying your dues, but you are gifted, intelligent, articulate, loved by God, and have a soul. I want to change the stereotypical image that people have of prisoners—that they have no worth to society. I want you to know how much we appreciate what you are doing and what it means to us. Your reviews get the most re-tweets of all the tweets I send out and are viewed every month by thousands. Hopefully, I can get this out in a broader way to the media in the future."
Later, the volunteer shared with me how much that meant to her. I’m sure if my words touched her heart, they had to have touched the hearts of the prisoners also.
Jesus said in Matthew 25:40: “When you did it to these my brothers, you were doing it to me!”
Thank you, John 3:16 Authors, for all the books you have sent to the prison. They have a home forever at the Wakulla Correctional Institute.
Thank you, Steve Fox, for being the conduit at Wakulla Correctional and making all of this possible. And thank you, Jesus, for multiplying the gift of writing into a ministry far greater than anything we could have imagined. I look forward to us being together in heaven.
The final batch of books will be delivered to Wakulla Correctional sometime in September. At that point over 150 Christian books will have been donated to the library. I anticipate we will close this project out by the end of the year since our goal to restock the library will be accomplished. I sense God calling us to another ministry opportunity, perhaps a school, prison, or something we haven’t even imagined. If God has put something on your heart where our books would be welcomed, please leave a comment and contact information. I (Lorilyn Roberts) will get back with you.