I had the honor of visiting West Virginia’s only maximum security prison this weekend, Mt. Olive. I was invited to do so by Catalyst Ministries out of Charleston lead by Calvin Sutphin. Calvin is a man of great compassion and vision. This was actually the third time I’ve had the privilege of going there.

I was in Charleston to speak at a luncheon then for a church service at Maranatha Fellowship Church pastored by Darrell and Tami Powell. Precious people.That church has a heart for the men up at Mt. Olive. And when I say “up”, that’s literal – it’s on the top of a mountain.

The men were waiting for us when we got there on Saturday afternoon. These are the men who attend the Bible College in the prison facility itself. I attended the graduation of the first class earlier this year and I recognized many of the men. Some had written to me. I wish I could show you their faces – photos are not allowed at this time. Many have teeth missing, some have scars, lots of tats, lots of beards, many have bald heads or gray hair. Most of them have a life sentence – in West Virginia you can be sentenced to “life without mercy” which means there is no chance you will ever get out. Then there is “life with mercy” which means you may have a chance at parole at some point. Either way, they are in for a long time and life is grim.

But when you step inside the chapel all you see is joy and hope. Their faces are bright and they are full of love. I know their crimes were heinous – I do not ask – but they know God’s forgiveness and mercy in a real, profound way. Their’s is a simple faith. They are not distracted by all we have out here. All they have is Christ and each other – they are a true brotherhood. It is a joy to see.

When we arrived Calvin asked one of them to lead us in worship. He was sitting at the keyboard and though he does not read music he began to play and sing, “The Anchor Holds” by Ray Boltz. How precious to hear those men sing, “The anchor holds though the ship is battered. The anchor holds though the sails are torn. I have fallen on my knees as I faced the raging seas. The anchor holds in spite of the storm.” They know the truth of those words in a very profound way.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Such a sweet, sweet spirit was all around. It was worship in its purest form.

One very big former African-American policeman was with us and he was crying like a baby. He knew the men’s stories. He had arrested some of them! These men have been transformed. He has even gone to the parole board for one of them to be released! The parole board said this was unprecedented! I guess so. But so exciting and marvelous. Only Jesus could do that!

I left that afternoon so blessed by these men and what was happening inside that prison.

We talk about prison reform. And I am glad we do. Prisons should not be warehouses for people run by gangs. The inmates are forgotten by society. Thrown away as it were – no one should be thrown away. No one is beyond God’s love and mercy. It was on full display Saturday afternoon. True prison reform will only come through the transforming work of Jesus Christ.

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