It’s not your typical congregation.
This congregation is made up of all women – all dressed in uniform blue pant suits.
The women are murderers, thieves, addicts and child abusers. They have been described as “the devil’s trophies.”
And, they are incarcerated, living out the consequences of their criminal choices in a dark, forgotten place – Homestead Correctional Institution.
Yet, in that dark place many of the women inmates have found the Light of Jesus Christ.
In January 2014, Church by the Glades in Coral Springs, pastored by David Hughes, partnered with God Behind Bars to launch a congregational campus at Homestead Correctional Institution.
“Jesus doesn’t command us to love those who deserve to be loved,” said Tiffani Dhooge who directs the Homestead campus for Church by the Glades. “He said, ‘Love them anyway,’ and we get to be the ones who come alongside those who have literally been broken apart by life and wrap them with His unconditional love. We get to personify grace.”
Church by the Glades conducts two weekly worship services at the prison; sermons and teaching are on video while all other aspects of the services are led by church volunteers.
Friends and families of the inmates are invited to be a part of the services as well, joining in the praise music, prayers and sermon online.
Approximately 225 women inmates attend worship services each week, out of a total prison population of just over 600.
Although these congregants have lost their freedom in society, many have found new freedom through the gospel, making professions of faith and then rising from the waters of baptism to begin their new walks with Christ, even while they are still incarcerated.
Once or twice each year, Church by the Glades baptizes the women who have made professions of faith. Since the launch of the prison campus about three and a half years ago, 264 women have been baptized in the baptistery within the prison.
Sometimes the logistics of conducting baptisms within the prison walls can be daunting, reported Heather Palacios, creative production specialist for Church by the Glades, who participated in a recent baptismal service this spring.
There were “unexpected obstacles – the bureaucratic kind that could render a church team powerless,” she said. “I know the enemy was prowling, but I also know the enemy on his best day is laughable to God! We stayed calm, compliant and cheerful.”
Then within a few hours “and 49 baptisms later – God won! Not only did God have His way with the baptism happening; He also had His way through some of the women too. A few were filled with such trepidation about getting into the water. Stiff-legged, crying, clutching, they forged through their fears and got dunked! It was beautiful!”
To train and support the women who have made professions of faith, the church also conducts several small-group studies there, with approximately 100 inmates attending the small groups each week.
The small groups help the women “learn not only about the Bible but also many valuable life skills, such as how to manage finances and family, so when they get out of prison they are better equipped to be successful members of society,” said Kory Cassell, Church by the Glades staff member. Cassell oversees the Homestead congregational campus as well as a second congregational campus launched at Dade Correctional Institution for men in September 2014.
Many prison staff members have reported vast improvement in the prison culture since the campuses started, said Cassell, with some staffers even visiting the Church by the Glades campuses in Broward “just to experience the church that is loving and changing these inmates.”
Upon release, many of the women connect with one of the Church by the Glades campuses, he added.
The “church behind bars” provides a “church family on the outside immediately,” said Cassell.
By Margaret Colson for the Florida Baptist Convention
Barbara Denman contributed to this article