LAKE CITY–Churches looking for transformative ways to minister to the lost need only look to the nearest state prison, said Bo Hammock, a regional chaplain with the Florida Department of Corrections.
Florida’s prisons are located “close to a lot of churches,” he said. “But I don’t think people realize how easy it is for them to get in and minister.”
The state’s prisons could use more volunteers from area churches in a variety of ways,” he said, from holding church services and leading Bible studies, to mentoring, tutoring and so much more. For some prisoners, even the ministry of presence can make a huge difference.
As Region 2 chaplain with the state prison system, Hammock serves as “chaplain to the chaplains” of the North Florida prisons. While prisons in more rural areas may only see one to four volunteers a week, Hammock said he’d like to see that increase to about 20 per week. If 40 churches just committed to coming once a week, the impact could be tremendous, he added.
Noting that 30,000 offenders are released annually, Hammock said, “we do a lot of programs that help their head. But if we don’t change their heart, they will have a tough time once they get back outside. There is an opportunity for churches, regardless of their size, to change the worlds that they live in.”
Becoming a volunteer in the state prison system is not difficult but there is an application process and training involved. Those interested should first contact the chaplain of their nearest state prison to find out the type of volunteer work needed. The online application process includes a background check, being fingerprinted and watching online videos.
“We need all the volunteers we can get,” said Hammock, who also serves as pastor of The Vineyard Church in Lake City. “But many people are scared to go into prisons. I think they’ve probably watched too many movies. They don’t realize the impact they can have.”
Some churches will send a small group of people to hold church services complete with preaching and a praise team.
One Jacksonville church leads a weekly service at the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford. Volunteers arrive each Monday afternoon to lead in a time of praise and worship before watching a DVD recording of the pastor’s recent sermon.
The church embraces the ministry as one of their campuses and offenders can become church members. The service has become so popular that the chapel has exceeded capacity and now back-to-back services are held to accommodate all who want to attend.
“Some of the best worship you will ever experience in your life is inside a prison,” Hammock said.
At the Suwannee Correctional Institution in Live Oak, the chaplain recently partnered with James Roberts, catalyst of the North Florida Baptist Network, to coordinate a five-night crusade that was deemed a success. A different pastor preached each night. “We had the highest attendance,” Hammock said. “And 10 guys were baptized on Friday night. It was a great thing for the prison.”
Another good thing happening in Florida prisons, according to Hammock, is the Faith and Character Dorms available at each state prisons. Persons of any faith can apply to live in the Faith and Character dorms, but they must complete core classes for consideration.
The dorms offer a more positive atmosphere and living situation. “It’s a better place to live, a different environment,” Hammock said. “You’re walking into a whole different world.”
He said the lack of or low number of disciplinary reports at these dorms demonstrates the program’s success. And he gives credit to Mark Inch, secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, for not only supporting and encouraging the chaplaincy programs at prisons but also increasing the number of Faith and Character Dorms.
All of this makes for a very welcoming environment for church volunteers who want to help these men make positive changes in their lives.
“If churches reach out to them while they’re in, they can make a big difference when they get out,” he said. “The fields are ripe for harvest, but the laborers are few.”