On the morning of April 27, a mobile baptistry was wheeled into the chapel at Foothills Correctional Institution. As the water was readied, 21 men prepared to take one of the most important steps of their lives.
They shed their jumpsuits in favor of T-shirts and athletic shorts and stepped into the water. They were not thinking about freedom from incarceration — they were praising God for their freedom in Christ.
Foothills Correctional Institution is a close and minimum custody prison in Morganton, N.C. The majority of its population is made up of close custody male offenders, ages 18-25, though it also includes a small population of offenders ages 13-17 and serves as a processing camp for offenders who are being transferred to other adult camps.
As is the case in most close custody prisons, many of its inmates face long-to-lifetime sentences. And yet, as these baptisms indicate, many inmates at Foothills are finding life and freedom in Christ.
Witnessing life change
David Tuberville — a Foothills Chaplain and a member of El Bethel Baptist Church in Morganton — says that in his 30 years of service, this is the largest number of people they have ever baptized at one time. The second largest took place in the fall of 2019, when they baptized 17 people.
Tuberville credits the life change they are witnessing at Foothills to how God is using people such as volunteers to witness to inmates. Through regular fellowship, Bible study and ministries such as the Kairos Prison Ministry Program — an international ministry program that uses intensive weekends to develop Christian community within prisons — many inmates have had the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel.
“The volunteers lead Bible studies during the week and will help lead Sunday services,” Tuberville said. “Twice a year, we also have volunteers that lead the Kairos Prison Ministry Programs as well. Each time, 30 inmates are invited to participate, no matter their faith or gang affiliation.”
Each inmate is paired with a volunteer throughout the weekend as they learn about God’s love and forgiveness. Every month, they have a reunion where former participants of Kairos are invited to worship, pray and discuss their faith in the chapel.
God is not only moving through volunteers, though.
“Inmates are telling inmates about Jesus, and explaining the Bible and teaching other inmates how to witness,” Tuberville said.
Primarily, he sees this happening through the work of field ministers.
Foothills currently has four field ministers, graduates of the North Carolina Field Minister Program (NCFMP) through The College at Southeastern. The NCFMP is an academic program designed for inmates who have 12 or more years remaining on their sentence and desire to steward their time to minister to other inmates. Each field minister at Foothills received a Bachelor of Arts in Pastoral Ministry with a secondary concentration in counseling from The College at Southeastern.
Now, they are using their degrees to reach other inmates with the gospel.
Ministry behind bars
Field minister Kirston Angell was 16 when he became incarcerated, and in July, he will turn 34.
“Soon, I’ll have been in prison longer than I was free,” Angell said. “But God saw fit to correct me, show me His love through Jesus and His church, and He has given me a new heart, mind and desire to serve others.”
Through his shared experience, Angell feels especially called to minister to the at-risk youth in the prison system.
Other field ministers at Foothills shared similar stories of how they are using the remainder of their sentence to reach other inmates.
“Because of my love for the Lord, I wanted to serve inside the prison facilities while I am here and reach other incarcerated inmates with the good news of Jesus Christ,” Field Minister Charles Young said. “God has opened all kinds of doors for ministry.”
At Foothills, field ministers work alongside chaplains to disciple inmates, provide counseling, preach, lead Bible studies and teach classes, with subjects ranging from music and social skills to specific courses such as “Thinking for a Change,” “Fathers’ Accountability” and “Experiencing God.”
Field Minister Kyle Triplett said he is amazed at how God is moving at Foothills.
“Men are responding to the gospel, giving up their sinful ways, and turning to God in repentance and faith,” Triplett said. “I have seen men freed from the bondage of addiction, pornography and anger by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
“It’s exciting not only to witness these men come to faith in Christ but see them be baptized into the body of believers.”
Field Minister Lucas Rash has seen God moving as well.
“I have seen an increase in men who sincerely desire to share Christ with their neighbor,” Rash said. “It’s not easy, perfect or neat, but the desire and willingness is becoming more prevalent in guys across the camp.”
Rash said he prays for a day when each cell block “has a group of guys praying, fellowshipping and truly living for God.”
But these men know the work is not done. Together, the field ministers and “Chap” — as they affectionately call Tuberville — are committed to continue walking alongside these new believers as they cultivate their relationships with the Lord.
“When you accept Christ, that’s not just the end of your faith — that’s the beginning of lifelong growth,” Tuberville said.
Freedom through transformation
As Tuberville asks those baptized about what’s next, they clearly know the journey is not over.
“One of the guys getting baptized knew he was going to be transferring soon, and he talked about going out as a missionary,” Tuberville said. “Helping other guys find what he’s got.”
Another inmate is expecting release soon, and he expressed the desire to sit down with his older children and share how coming to faith changed his life and could change theirs, too.
One even expressed interest in becoming a field minister.
“He had committed murder and was going to be in the prison system for a while, and he felt a call on his life to see if he could help other guys come to Christ like he had,” Tuberville said.
To Tuberville, the lives of these inmates are just another picture of the transformative power of the gospel.
“The big thing that I would like people to understand is that the transformative power of God doesn’t stop because someone has sinned,” Tuberville said. “That’s why Jesus came so that we could be forgiven and transformed by God. Just because someone has committed a crime, even a heinous one, that doesn’t mean that person can’t be forgiven and used by God.
“I have seen guys in prison who are freer in prison than church members who come every Sunday. These inmates may be physically restrained in prison, but they are free in spirit. Because they have been forgiven much, they have this opportunity to love and serve Christ.”
And it’s Tuberville’s prayer that these 21 men would continue to do just that.
by Kari Wilson, N.C. Baptist contributing writer