Five days before Christmas 2012, the first inmates arrived at the Aliceville Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) work camp. This is a new federal prison for women in rural west Alabama. The work camp is for trustee-type prisoners who do janitorial, lawn care and food preparation tasks in the facility.
The text for the initial worship service three days later was “The Song of Zachariah.” The focus was on Luke 1:74-75, which declares that Jesus is coming to defeat our enemies – sin, death and Satan – so that we can serve without fear in holiness and righteousness.
This past Sunday nearly half of the residents of the camp overflowed the chapel for worship. This is not unusual.
The Camp Community Church has taken Luke 1:74-75 as its watchword, and the members are working to create a community where love and service abound. They have selected a cadre, called the Camp’s Naomi Corps, which provides Bible study and a prayer ministry during the week.
Worship is intense, involved and exciting. At first only one hour was allotted, but the ladies lobbied with the prison staff to get it expanded to 90 minutes.
They have formed a choir, a drama team and a dance team to support the worship experience. During Lent, they organized a march to Jericho, seeing the walls of hostility, racism and bitterness come falling down.
A key element of worship is the time for praise and petition. Week by week, blessings from God are reported. A regular item for prayer is the call for unity. With an ever-growing population, this is an ongoing effort.
Recently, one Hispanic lady declared that the “Aliceville Camp is more like a church than a prison camp.” Applause broke out.
Four weeks ago, inmates began to arrive at the primary prison where eventually 1,200 women will live in cells two-by-two. Worship services there were attended by 70 of the 200 current residents.
The initial services used the same Luke 1:74-75 text. There, too, we are finding ladies who are committed Christians and are beginning to build a second church within the institution.
By this Christmas, this prison will have 900 residents and we anticipate a church running 350 each Sunday, the largest church in our rural area by far.
When a prison is projected for a rural area there are three primary responses. Some see it with fear. Some see it through dollar signs – more income for their city, county, company or themselves. Some see a cross, a harvest and a crown.
The cross is a ministry that one picks up daily and follows Christ in building relationships of service and love.
We are ministering with our sisters there, and a harvest is being produced, gathered and sent forth.
We see the two new churches in Aliceville FCI as missionary-sending agencies.
Having a commitment to ministry with, more than to, has been a key for the effectiveness we have been experiencing. Sometimes we are impatient about dealing with the federal government, but it is appearing that God’s timing is better than ours.
A group calling itself “100 Godly Women and Friends” has been formed in the area outside the prison. Its purpose is to provide ministry and education to the prisoners. More than 200 are signed up, and some of them will be adding weekday classes and ministries to the mix of activities going on at our prison.
We need to add more worship services in the camp in both English and Spanish. We anticipate that some of the ladies coming to the prison will be Immigration and Naturalization Service prisoners.
Fortunately, there is a large community of Mennonites within 25 miles of the prison, many of whom have done missionary work in Mexico and Central America.
God has put all of this in place.
Gary Farley is director of missions for the Pickens Baptist Association of West Alabama.