04 Oct Thursday Night Church at the County Jail
Ryan Dunn, reporter for The Courier newspaper (Findlay, Ohio)
Before Jim Woodward asked the dozen jail inmates to join him for an opening prayer, he acknowledged change will not be easy for the prisoners.
“I think we all need patience,” Woodward told them. “I know I do.”
Each Thursday night, a Hancock County jail recreation room becomes a makeshift church, complete with pastors preaching growth through Scripture. The congregation is detained men and women. Some have been convicted of crimes, others are waiting while their cases inch forward in court.
Inmates can attend one of three 45-minute sessions, two for men and one for women, often discussing responsibility and opportunity after making poor decisions.
Woodward, who organizes the program and owns The Razor’s Edge barbershop in Findlay, said the meetings grew from a monthly guest speaker to weekly Bible study. “We felt if we did it once a month, they’d fall back through the cracks before we got back there,” Woodward said.
Despite strict searches by corrections officers, inmates consistently visit the service. “Would you go to church if you were patted down before and strip-searched after?” Woodward said.
They meet in a large room that makes tackling heavy topics difficult. Voices echo loudly off the cinder block walls and several air vents hum, but few inmates break eye contact.
The Revs. Darwin Dunten (right) and Teddy Fairchild, of Findlay’s First United Brethren and The Rock churches, respectively, routinely cite Bible passages that speak of strength through God. Both pastors said they deliver the same sermon, with additional explanation, as they do during regular church service. “What I preach on Sunday morning is what I bring here, literally,” Fairchild said.
After a year and a half of chaplain work, guiding both inmates and corrections officers, the jail has become a “second church” for Fairchild (right).
There are remarkable moments when inmates connect deeply to a reading, but Fairchild said his group aims more for long-term growth.
“I don’t think there’s ever really a success mark,” he said. “Our goal is to plant the seed for change.”
The jail church can guide that change, he said, through rehabilitation programs and job searches. If inmates prove to be committed to improving their lives after incarceration, Fairchild vouches for that progress.
Dunten said they try to encourage inmates, and hope they will later join a church. “When they come in, we’re not condemning them,” Dunten said. “A lot of these people have never been encouraged.”
Though some argue against jail programs working to inspire inmates, Dunten said Scripture clearly states the importance of doing so. “I understand the frustration, but it does not take away the responsibility the church has,” he said.
The personal approach is what draws inmates, such as James Waller, each week. He said he always wanted to attend church, but struggled to find the right fit. The program highlights relevant Bible messages that are applicable to everyday life, he said. “Every time I go to these, when somebody talks, it relates to me,” he said. Waller said he plans to visit Fairchild’s church after leaving jail.
A recent session hosted incoming County Commissioner Brian Robertson. He asked the inmates to share the burdens that continue haunting them. Some spoke of their past, ongoing temptations, and pressures to provide for a family. “It’s very, very easy to be a wayward son, but it’s hard to find a path to the straight and narrow,” Robertson told them.
More than 30 people attended Bible study that night, about a third of the jail’s inmates.
Word has spread quickly because the problems discussed, such as curbing drug use and maintaining relationships, are ones that matter, said Lt. Ryan Kidwell, jail administrator. “What I think makes (Woodward’s) program different is he tries to address real-life problems for the incarcerated,” Kidwell said. “He doesn’t put on any type of front.”
The team of volunteers improves jail life, he said, as inmates act with more respect toward corrections officers thanks to the program. After leaving jail, many inmates visit Woodward’s barbershop. He “sees them for who they are and not what they’ve done,” Kidwell said.
During sermons, Woodward passes a spiral notebook to the inmates. He asks them to detail any topic for him to pray over. Woodward holds on to those books, which are filled with personal messages. Most ask to stay dedicated to change, or be more accountable toward loved ones, he said.
“There’s always some who come to get out of their cells, no question,” Woodward said. “But they trust us.”