Pastoring Youth Behind Bars

(Editor’s note: The following has been adapted from a panel discussion, “Faith and the Justice System,” a part of Missio Seminary’s Courageous Conversations, which took place on November 18, 2021, at the Bible Way Baptist Church in West Philadelphia. YouTube recording of the panel discussion is found here.)

I was born and raised literally about 11 blocks from Bible Way Baptist Church, where I am the pastor. It’s always an honor to pastor where I live. I love the community where we serve and I spend every waking moment trying to make it better. I’ve been here for 28 years and I am deeply committed to it, but I’m also passionate about at-risk youth, and anybody who knows me knows that I spend every waking moment thinking about how to rescue some of these kids from themselves.

I know that there is a God, because of a whole host of reasons. I grew up in a tough neighborhood, but I had a mother and a father who were married until they died. I had a great relationship with my Dad. Now, I honestly don’t remember how this happened, but I started to get this burden for kids who didn’t have fathers, as a young person, right after high school. That fire got started in me and never left. At the time, I was part of a church on the southwest side of Philadelphia, and this was a very traditional church–they didn’t do a lot of ministry. They were all about what happened inside the four walls. But as I learned for myself and grew, and started reading the Bible for myself, I learned that there was a whole lot more to being a Christian and being church than anniversaries and dinners. I began to look for some opportunities to do what I was reading in the Bible.

There was a trustee at our church, and he started teaching me about the Bible, the kingdom and what Gcd wants from us. One day he said, “Well, I know you’re trying to discern your calling. Why don’t go up to the jail with me?” “Jail?” I said, “I said I was called to ministry; I didn’t say anything about jail.” The way I grew up, we didn’t know a lot about actual ministry. But he took me up to jail with him, and I was blown away. Every stereotypical thought that I had in my mind about prison and prisoners were shattered, and something got ignited in me that day.

The first sermon I ever preached was at Holmesburg Prison. I have a brick from that building–the building is falling down now–to remind me where I started. I did not start in plush church pulpits; I started in the cafeterias of Holmesburg prison.

You know, I’d always wished I had a testimony of getting my life totally turned around and saved from the streets like these kids in prison. But I don’t have that kind of testimony. Growing up, peer pressure didn’t affect me, because I was more afraid of parent pressure. I had a strong mother and a strong father at home, and I knew that if I didn’t go to school everyday I was more scared of dealing with them than any other kid at school. So I grew up pretty sheltered, and one of the reason I started out by saying there is a God is because in the work that I did now with these young people, there was no way that somebody with my background should be able to connect with their backgrounds. I don’t know what it feels like to wear handcuffs. I’ve never been detained other than speeding. But outside of that, I’ve never been in the back of a police car. But here I was going to the prison with this trustee, thinking, “How in the world am I going to connect with these kids, when I don’t have the testimony?”

But I found out that I didn’t need it, that all they wanted was somebody to be real with them; all they wanted was somebody to be honest; they just wanted somebody to sit and talk. They wanted somebody to care. So I learned how to sit.

I ran into this wonderful man at the Philadelphia Youth Study Center–a chaplain and a preacher. He often said that one day he was going to pastor a church, but everybody who knew him knew that he would be horrible if he pastored a church. He would get kicked out because he’s like a bull in a china closet. But at the jail he was absolutely the most amazing guy because all of those kids were drawn to this preacher like a magnet. I learned from this preacher how to connect with these kids that I had no real connection with, and a lot of it was just caring about them, treating them with respect, and listening to what they have to say. A lot of it was just building relationships, about anything you can connect with. I could start out with, “Tell me what your tattoos mean,” and we would have a conversation about the tattoos. A lot of it was just talking about what part of the city they came from, and talking about the differences between the neighborhoods, and after a while, these kids started to open up and they started to connect with me in ways that I never thought was possible, because I didn’t have their backgrounds. But I didn’t need it.

I lose sleep at night worrying about my kids, but at least I can touch them and I can make things happen for them. But I also worry about the kids behind bars, who don’t have anybody to watch out for them, to stand up for them, to support them, to love them, to care about them. I am the pastor of a church, and it’s the highest honor of my life, but I will continue until I close my eyes to fight for this marginalized, criminalized generation that has very few people standing for them.

After many years of doing prison ministry work, I was called to Bible Way Baptist Church. I wake up everyday thinking, “We’ve got to do things to love this community.” That fire that burns for at-risk kids never subsided in me. So I became a part of the city’s board for Philadelphia prisons.

Missio Seminary president Dr. Frank James took a tour of the city prison with me a few years ago and we went into the cell of a young man that I had been mentoring. It was dark and chilly, and he was in bed, asleep. I went into the cell and woke him up, and he jumped out of bed, and that’s how I introduced him to Dr. James. This young man and I had been very close. He said, “I’ve been sentenced to 25 years to life, with the possibility of parole.” He had spent 6 years on State Road detention center awaiting trial.

“I stood behind the defense table, next to my criminal defense attorney, where decades of verdicts and sentences have been rendered. I glanced at the government seal on the wall. I held out hope thinking the judge would be fair and take my age into consideration. I expected a harsh sentence, but not this; not life. When the judge pounded the gavel on that hardwood block on his desk, it felt like a hammer coming down on my head. It felt like a nail on my coffin. At 20 years old, I was being sent to prison for a crime that I committed when I was 13 years old. As I was being led away in shackles, my eyes briefly locked with my family, and they broke down, and all I could hear were their cries. I was in a state of shock. I arrived back at the county jail and was immediately escorted to the hole and placed in solitary confinement to ponder my fate. But the helpless feeling of having no control over my own life didn’t last long. I knew I had to get busy and fight for my freedom even if it meant being forced to do it from behind prison walls. I was determined to find a way and I was up for the challenge.”

This is a young guy who represents so many kids in this city and across this nation. I have four children of my own; I wake up everyday to take care of my wife and my four children, but I also wake up to take care of these children behind bars as well. I lose sleep at night worrying about my kids, but at least I can touch them and I can make things happen for them. But I also worry about these kids that we have interacted with, who really don’t have anybody to watch out for them, to stand up for them, to support them, to love them, to care about them. So that’s where I am today–to pastor Bible Way Baptist Church is the highest honor of my life, but as a part of that, I will continue until I close my eyes to fight for this marginalized, criminalized generation that has very few people standing for them.

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