Reading a Bible for the first time a handful of years ago in a prison cell at Two Rivers Correctional Institution, Jose Avila-Flores was introduced to a loving God.
“I read that people were broken and needed love and care,” he said. “I learned that I was lost but I was loved.”
Now 28, Avila-Flores has been locked up for nearly nine years. Barely an adult when he was first incarcerated for attempted aggravated murder, the former Lane County resident is grateful for religious services offered at the prison.
“The chapel is a community of support,” he said.
A sea of denim filled a multi-purpose room during a recent chapel service at the Umatilla prison, which houses both medium and minimum security inmates. The services are facilitated by various religious organizations and are offered seven days a week, said Don Hodney, a chaplain with the Oregon Department of Corrections since 2000.
Hodney, who echoed Avila-Flores’ comments about community, said the worship services averages between 45 and 90 inmates.
“Religious services provide a sense of community — coming together in worship creates a community that seems to cross perceived boundaries of race, status or denomination loyalty,” he said.
The services, Hodney said, provide an opportunity for inmates to become a community of faith where they can receive instruction on how to focus on God.
Ray Douglass, 47, who has been incarcerated for 11 years, has also gained skills by performing video production and PowerPoint presentations for services. However, he said participating in faith-based programs several times a week is more than a job to him.
“It leads to a renewal in your life and realizing what we’ve done is wrong,” Douglass said. “It takes it beyond a head knowledge.”
Coming to prison made things real for the former Yamhill County man. Douglass, too, appreciates the opportunity to not be so guarded.
“You always hear you have to be tough,” he said. “But people can relax around here and let others in some.”
Tadd Bazant, 41, grew up attending church with his family. However, at the age of 18 he quit going. When he landed in prison 10 years later, the former Washington County resident sought out religious programming — both as a way to reach out to others and to make changes in his life.
“People in prison aren’t bad, they just messed up,” Bazant said. “Everyone has a chance for redemption.”
Under the umbrella of religious services, Hodney said upwards of 160 volunteers provide inmate programs. In addition to numerous faith-based organizations, inmate worship bands, religious study groups, American Indian drumming and ceremonies, spiritual retreats, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, annual holiday celebrations, anger management and meditation groups fall under the prison’s religious services programs.
Scott and Kelly Zielke started visiting the prison with Dale and Sandy Russell, founders of Visions of Hope — an inmate art and sponsorship program that provides support for Otino Waa Children’s Village in Uganda. Utilizing their musical talents, the Hermiston couple has participated in rehearsals and services with inmate worship bands. Calling them talented musicians, Kelly said they do a great job in setting the stage for worship services.
“They are really singing to the lord,” Kelly said. “It touches me because it is so genuine ... they truly are praising God.”
The couple is in the process of going through Department of Corrections volunteer training in order to participate more in faith-based prison programs.
Unsure of exactly what they will do, the Zielkes just want to reach out to incarcerated individuals who are looking for hope and striving to change their lives. Scott Zielke said it’s about reconciliation and a redeeming God. The ironic thing, he said, is the inmates are incarcerated but have reached beyond the prison walls and razor wire to find more freedom than they had before being locked up.
Bazant agreed, saying the faith-based prison programs reach across barriers to provide something special.
“When we come together like this, we are a community of God,” he said.