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After years in jail himself, United Methodist ministers to work release inmates

After years in jail himself, United Methodist ministers to work release inmates

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

After years in jail himself, United Methodist ministers to work release inmates

Sept. 22, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0551}

An e-Review Feature
By Amy Green**

Randy Reynolds got the idea while visiting a friend in jail. A member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville, Fla., he wondered what ministries were available to inmates of the Alachua County Jail.

Today Reynolds, 51, leads a ministry to inmates of the jail’s work release program.

Randy Reynolds helps work release inmates at the Alachua County jail delve into the big questions of faith through the Alpha course on basic Christian beliefs. Photo courtesy of Gail Schneider Mitchell, Photo #06-438.

Reynolds teaches an Alpha course, a nondenominational course in the basics of Christianity established in 1977 by a London clergyman, which has spread worldwide to churches, prisons, workplaces and elsewhere through materials on the Internet. Drawing on what he learned from an Alpha course at Trinity United Methodist Church, he now teaches about 25 inmates each week. 

Reynolds says he identifies with them. A grocery store produce manager, Reynolds is open with inmates about his mug shot and rap sheet, which is so long it drops to the floor when he holds it up for inmates to see, he said. Reynolds was in and out of jail most of his life for drug- and alcohol-related charges before he became a Christian in 1993.

Five months after starting the course, he said he is now beginning to see benefits.

“Sometimes you just kind of plant seeds, but you don’t know where they’re going to fall,” he said. “These people, they’re fixin’ to be released. If we’re not working with them now, they’re going to be right back doing something else and be right back.”

The Alpha course is a multi-week introduction to Christianity that seeks to answer such basic questions as, “Who was Jesus?,” through videos and discussion groups.

After participating in an Alpha course at Trinity United Methodist Church Reynolds began looking for innovative ways to share it. He had that goal in mind when he visited a friend in jail. He approached staff members about establishing an Alpha course for inmates, and after some time they agreed.

Most work release inmates are incarcerated short-term, like Reynolds was, on drug- and alcohol-related charges. The Alpha course addresses such weighty questions as, “Is there a God?” and “Why is there evil in the world?” Inmates watch a video and then break into small groups for discussion over dessert. They talk about whether they feel Jesus really existed and whether they’ve ever experienced him in their lives.

Discussion also focuses on past mistakes and plans for a better future, said Gail Schneider Mitchell, 50, who is among about five others who help teach the course.

“The value that I get is meeting people from all walks of life,” said Mitchell, who teaches in the University of Florida College of Dentistry. “In some situations they have very different circumstances and in some cases very similar. It continually makes me focus on my blessings.”

Work release staff members supervise each session, and after one session a staff member followed Reynolds to the parking lot and asked about attending an Alpha course at Trinity United Methodist Church. A few inmates have also expressed interest in returning after their release to help with the course, Reynolds said. One inmate didn’t want to participate in the course, but got involved because a friend did.

“When he got out I went by and picked him up and started bringing him to Trinity Sunday mornings because he didn’t have transportation,” Reynolds said. “Church was something different for him, and he was just amazed. He was just surprised by how everyone accepted him and how friendly everybody was, and he didn’t feel intimidated.”

Reynolds puts inmates at ease with his sense of humor, encouraging them to open up, said Glenn Surratt, a corrections counselor with the work release program. Surratt said the course also brings inmates together. When one inmate lost a family member he said he noticed other inmates praying and studying the Bible with the inmate.

“A lot of people were skeptical at first, you know, if anybody would go,” he said. “They’ve really made some good relationships. They’ve gotten to know people, and some of these guys are here for a year and they keep coming every week.”

Brandon Jeffery DeBose, 21, is serving a year in jail on a burglary charge. Growing up in Orlando, Fla., he was troubled by a distant father and eventually got into drugs. He blames no one but himself for his mistakes and said he was crying out for help when he landed in jail. He began participating in the Alpha course several months ago and believes he has found the help he was looking for.

“I thank God for placing me in jail, giving me an escape route from the life that I was living,” DeBose writes from jail. “The program has gave me (sic) some insight on my life and some changes that I will make in my life. It has really inspired me to want to make a change and show kids that there’s another life out there. A life beyond the neighborhood.”

This article relates to Outreach Ministries.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Green has written for The Christian Science Monitor, Christianity Today, Religion News Service and other publications. She freelances from Deltona, Fla.