Solid steel doors slam shut with every new occupant. Visitors are greeted by cold, concrete floors, bright lights and loud reverberations that echo off the walls.
This is a glimpse of what prisons look like. The issue of incarceration was brought to light when Chris Hoke and Neaners Garcia addressed John Brown University on March 30. They spoke about their jail ministry in Skagit Valley with an organization called Tierra Nueva.
Chris Hoke is a jail chaplain and pastor to gangs and violent offenders in the valley. His partner and friend, Neaners Garcia, was released from the prison about three years ago. Hoke and Garcia now work to build relationships with the dozens of men Neaners knows from the underground network of convicts.
At a small Christian college, students can easily stay in a safe, comfortable place, but students from John Brown University also have the opportunity to reach out to the men and women who face sentences in the local jails of Northwest Arkansas.
“The Jail ministry puts you right there in the cell with the inmates,” junior nursing major and ministry participant Levi Branstetter said. “It may be a little intimidating, but people in the jail are hungry for the gospel.”
Junior Kiralyn Tuttle, co-leader of the ministry, encourages students to address the growing need for prison evangelism.
“I’ve talked with a lot of people who are thinking about getting involved. They might be nervous, either because it’s a jail or because they are nervous to teach,” Tuttle said.
Fear often deters students from prison ministry. Tuttle encourages students to look past the fear and allow God to work through them.
“By the grace of God, He always uses what we give,” Tuttle said.
Garcia shared his story of incarceration and solitary confinement as well as Hoke’s impact on his life.
“He brought my daughter to visit me – he did a lot of stuff that you think your homies from the streets or the community are going to do for you. He did that for me and it just had a big impact in my life. He was my safe zone,” Garcia said in his chapel address.
Through the work of Tierra Nueva and Chris Hoke’s friendship, Garcia and many others have received help, healing and empowerment.
“Where love and transgression collide, lean into love, and Jesus will meet you there,” Hoke said. “Be open to the jail ministry. Let yourself love.”
Branstetter encourages students to involve themselves in a CAUSE ministry. “The most important thing is getting out there with the people who need it the most instead of sitting in the pews on Sunday and [hearing] messages and not doing anything,” Branstetter said.
The prison ministry has worked in Washington County jail in Fayetteville, but plans future outreaches to Benton County jail.