Originally created 09/24/01

Preachers bring faith to prisons



AIKEN - Chaplain George Coleman is standing in the house of the Lord.

He is in an 8-foot-wide hallway, with pipes running under the ceiling, adjacent to the holding cell in the Aiken County Detention Center.

It is Saturday and Mr. Coleman is leading more than 40 of the jail's inmates in praise. He invites the inmates to open their hearts to reform and ask God to open the doors of forgiveness.

One inmate recites Psalm 46 from the Bible. His voice echoes through the halls as inmates who work in the jail's kitchen watch.

"God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble."

In the house of the Lord today are convicts.

Mr. Coleman, the jail's chaplain for the past year, and his volunteers hope to turn out inmates who know something about faith.

He wants to introduce the men and women to something, or someone, who will keep them from returning to prison.

Mr. Coleman, a youth pastor at the Greater Mount Canaan Missionary Baptist Church in Augusta, also makes calls to inmates' cells, visiting about 50 inmates daily.

Classes on religion are taught by volunteers. Most religions are acknowledged and allowed to be practiced inside the jail. Mr. Coleman says they are different means to serve the same God.

Many of the problems Mr. Coleman hears about from inmates are not overtly spiritual. Families sometimes shun those imprisoned. Divorces sometimes begin. And life is often unstable.

On Saturdays, problems of life are addressed from a spiritual perspective.

Some come to the services because it is better than staying in their cell.

But as the Rev. Keith Porter rises to preach, eyes turn to him. The Rev. Porter - a pastor at Mount Zion Outreach of Power, Authority and Dominion in Aiken - preaches with his hands, mostly his left index finger.

He points through the bars on the door of the holding cell. He points at the chests of the inmates who stand closest to him in the hallway. And he points to God.

He talks about Sarah, the wife of Abraham, who was told late in life she would have a baby even though her womb was barren.

"This right here, this Aiken County jail, is nothing but a womb. And it's going to produce the people of God," he said.

But on the outside, the people of God still sin, he said. Problems don't go away when the bars swing open.

Mr. Coleman said his flock really wants to change. They know something supernatural is needed. But some circumstances in their lives remain to be fixed.

"I try to tell them the same practices have to be pertinent when they leave here," he said. "The same God that moved barriers when they were in here is the same God they can see out there."

There are success stories. Mr. Coleman said a former inmate who had lost his job called him after his release. Now, after help from a church, he is a manager for a large company.

That former inmate gives the right message, Mr. Coleman said. He always says he has traded the colored suit of jail for the pin-striped suit of success.

"If we get one a month, one a day, one a minute, one a year, or one every 10 years, we feel we are successful," Mr. Coleman said.

The Rev. Porter is finished and sweating. He asks who is ready to go out. The inmates raise their hands. He asks who is ready to go out for God. The hands stay raised.

"Make a decision whom you are going to serve," he says.

Mr. Coleman prays one last time before the inmates head back to lockup.

"We need a cleansing, Lord. We need to be purged, Lord. Let us be purged as white as snow."

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or mboedy@augusta.com.