An inmate once wrote North Augusta Bible Chapel complaining that he was still waiting on the free Bible they had promised him for completing four Bible study correspondence courses. His roommate had gotten one, why hadn't he?Chapel members apologized and sent another, though records showed the book had been sent, recalled Peggy Gillingham, a member.
Time passed, and they got a second letter from the prisoner. He confessed that he'd gotten both Bibles but he'd traded the first one for a bag of coffee.
He was serious about the Lord now, however, and when he got out, he would pay them back, said Ms. Gillingham with a laugh. "We told him he didn't need to do that."
Ms. Gillingham, who works part-time for Nurseries Caroliniana, is a test grader for Emmaus Correspondence School of Dubuque, Iowa. She and about 30 other Bible Chapel members -- or about half the nondenominational congregation -- graded more than 10,000 Scripture-study courses for about 800 inmates in South Carolina last year.
"We are Emmaus in the South Carolina prisons," said Chris Hoffmann, a self-employed remodeler and chapel member who helps coordinate the 3-year-old ministry. The chapel works with some 45 institutions in South Carolina, from county jails to federal institutions.
The term Emmaus is a reference to the story of the Walk to Emmaus found in Mark 24: 13-35. The school mails about 300,000 noncredit courses each year to inmates in the United States and Canada through the help of workers such as those at the chapel.
Emmaus began in Toronto in 1942 and is the largest correspondence school of its kind in the world, Mr. Hoffman said.
The larger part of Emmaus' ministry is to the nonprison world. It has produced more than 16 million courses in 85 countries and 116 languages.
On Sunday nights, Ms. Gillingham and other Bible Chapel members sit at a long table and evaluate the exams. A black box with the answer keys rests on one end of the table.
There are 36 courses in all. Students work at their own pace. Inmates sometimes take a test three or four times before earning a passing score of 70 and going to the next one. The chapel mails back a certificate as each course is completed, plus two more study books, so that they can keep on working. After four courses, inmates can request a free Bible."(Prisoners) can continue for at least a year after they are released to get the courses for free," said Ms. Gillingham. But quite often they get busy with jobs, and it is hard to keep up.
The chapel subsidizes the ministry, although it accepts contributions. "Emmaus will (also) give us grants to buy courses if they get in a specific gift for that," said Mr. Hoffmann.
"Prisoners occasionally send a check from their hard-earned money -- like $4 or something -- because they appreciate these courses so much they want to help pay for the books," said Edee McKie of North Augusta.
"It is very humbling," said Ms. Gillingham.
Ted Stephens, an elder at the North Augusta chapel, found out about Emmaus a few years ago through a prison ministry he did with Sidney Temple of Augusta.
Mr. Temple and his wife, Gladys, have distributed Emmaus courses to Georgia inmates for 30 years. They have graded about 6,000 this year. "It is four times what it was two years ago," said Mrs. Temple. The couple attend Believers Gospel Chapel.
Mr. Temple, a retired civil service worker, conducts Bible studies in area jails and gives the study books away. His wife handles the correspondence courses.
Some people don't think anything should be done for prisoners, she said. "(Prisoners) know they have made a mess of their lives. . . . They have lost their wives, businesses and families. I can understand their families are bitter, but these men have a right to know about salvation," said Mrs. Temple.
The experience has been a spiritual encouragement to the North Augusta chapel members, said Ms. Gillingham. They can see changes in the prisoners as they work through the courses. "Their love for the Lord grows, and they desire to know more. We have seen an improvement in their study habits."
They hear some heartbreaking stories, but they meet some interesting people through their correspondence, said Ms. Gillingham. "You can see how much a personal relationship with the Lord can change someone's heart."
Most of the correspondents are men, but there are also quite a few women. Jack Alexander, a retired telephone PBX worker, said that he had graded all women's courses a couple of weeks ago.
Sometimes it is hard to read the handwriting, he said, a comment which brought a hearty laugh from his co-workers. "Other times they have real good handwriting. This guy has real good handwriting but it is so fancy it is hard to read" -- a remark that brought more laughter.
Prisoners will send in letters with questions that take longer to answer than they have time to on Sunday nights, said Ms. Gillingham. "Some of us will take some of them home and give it some thought and research and give a more complete response."
Emmaus includes a tear-out answer sheet with each course, but the chapel sends a streamlined version to save on mailing costs. "We try to do all our printing here," said Mr. Hoffmann.
North Augusta has assistance in grading the tests from two other chapels. Bethany Chapel in Columbia and Overbrook Gospel Chapel in Greenville each grade 50 tests a week and mail them back to North Augusta.
Each study book has a yellow request card that a correspondent can pass to a fellow inmate. The chapel gets about 50 new correspondents every week.
"We have people in the naval brig in Charleston who are doing the courses. I don't know how they even got there." said Mr. Hoffmann. "The cards just find themselves in all sorts of places."