Trenna stands before a roomful of inmates at the Howard County Jail in Kokomo, Ind. Her audience is a group of young women who have volunteered to take a 14-week substance abuse program sponsored by Almond Tree Prison Ministries, sponsored by Bible Baptist Church of Kokomo.
The inmates have been issued matching canvas shoes, yellow “Howard County” jerseys, blue pants, and plastic ID bracelets on their left wrists. In a jail where the prisoners must be at least 18 years old, the average age of the women is 19. Painfully young. Most are here because of drug or alcohol related offenses, or because they have been used up and abandoned by the men who abuse the same substances.
The inmates, who are often ordered by the court to take a substance abuse course, may choose between a traditional 12-step program or the “faith based” alternative program offered by Bible Baptist. Trenna wastes no time in explaining the difference to the inmates. “You do not have sickness. You do not have a disease. You do not need therapy. What you have is a sin problem,” she says.
Trenna is a familiar face to the jail staff. She tells the inmates how she had 23 arrests in Howard County. “I was strung out on crack cocaine when I came the last time. I looked like death. I sat in these very same chairs.”
To prove her point, she shows the inmates a large poster where she has collected all of her police mug shots, labeled with a succession of captions: Denial, Bitterness, Low Self-Esteem, Blame, Loneliness, Deceitful, Rejection.” The last mug shot—the lowpoint in her life before Christ-has one additional word: Death.
“I’m tired. I want my life back. I’m tired of living in captivity. I want freedom from this,” Trenna says as she describes her feelings when the last mug shot was taken. All over the room, heads are nodding.
Then Trenna offers hope. “The Bible says whom the Son sets free, shall be free indeed.”
Later, we meet with Chaplain Andrew Green, an area pastor who coordinates ministries for the jail. “When ex-offenders come back here to speak, they do more on accident that we can do on purpose,” he says. He speaks highly of the Almond Tree program, and volunteers as a trainer for the ministry.
The Almond Tree program is directed by Pam Russell, a member of Bible Baptist who certified as a lay chaplain with Regular Baptist Chaplaincy ministries. At first glance, it may seem unusual that the GARBC endorses a woman for this ministry. But when Chaplain Green explains how the jail is strictly divided by gender, with no men allowed to work directly with female prisoners, it begins to make sense.
“Their first exposure to Christianity is in prison,” Chaplain Green says says of the women who attend the counseling sessions. “They’ve never heard the name of Jesus.”
“Except as a cuss word,” Pam adds.
After she volunteered for the prison for a few years, Pam began to identify the need for substance abuse counseling from a Biblical perspective. She took counseling classes at Faith Baptist Church in Lafayette, Ind., and then began writing material and testing it among the inmates. After the program was formally approved for use in the jail, other churches began to ask if they could use the same material.
For a time, Almond Tree partnered with a well-known evangelical prison ministry in Illinois. While most of the Almond Tree volunteers were members of Bible Baptist Church, the organization was independent. All was not well-the larger evangelical ministry offered a distribution network for the Almond Tree materials, but was going through a public leadership crisis that nudged the Almond Tree leaders to make a hard decision.
Dan Johnson, former pastor of Bible Baptist Church, led the congregation to consider adopting the ministry as its own. Now all of the Almond Tree board are members of Bible Baptist, and the church offers office space in addition to the use of its building for Bible studies. The church congregation has embraced the new ministry, offering Bible studies and a church home for recently released inmates.
“The four pillars of our curriculum refer to the ideas that keep people enslaved in sin,” says Pam. “Sometimes we are dismissed as being faith based. Some who read the material are hostile, offended that it suggests we are moral beings.”
“The key, for us, was convincing jail officials that our program would be effective. We’re carefully trained, we work for free, and we won’t cost the county any money,” Pam says, adding, “other churches could do this.”
Trenna finishes her testimony and Pam Russell adds a final thought. “It doesn’t matter how many times you have been arrested. God can reach to the lowest place to find you,” she says.
A young woman steps forward to sing a closing song of encouragement to the other inmates. Her voice is clear and strong, and it follows us down the hall as we return to the prison door.
I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free!
Pam Russell talks with Chaplain Andrew Green about issues related to Almond Tree classes at the Howard County Jail. Andrew teaches Almond Tree classes to male prisoners, and he also teaches a workshop for training Almond Tree instructors.
“This lesson is about sulking and manipulation. As women, we seem to be good at this,” says Chris Toomay, teaching a “Good and Angry” Bible study class at Bible Baptist Church in Kokomo, Ind.
Donna Thompson, center, is a recent graduate of the program; and Glenda Lee, right, is taking the course for the first time.
“I told Chris at the beginning that anger was my problem,” says Donna, explaining how she went “from treatment center to treatment center” looking for help.
“In other treatment centers I would get in trouble for speaking about Jesus. Here I can be myself, bring my Bible, and ask questions about God,” Donna says.
Glenda found out about the Bible study when she drove by the church sign announcing the program.
“I’m not a trained counselor,” says Chris. “I’m more of a mentor who helps disciple others. Maybe there’s not enough of this happening in the church.”
Almond Tree counselor Hope Murdoch, left, mentors Kelly Jackson during Kelly’s lunch breaks at Wendy’s restaurant. Kelly is a graduate of Almond Tree substance abuse classes. Hope was her instructor.
“I spend all of my ministry in the ivory tower of the church,” says Hope, who is the wife of John Murdoch, endorsing chaplain for Regular Baptist Chaplaincy Ministries. Now Hope volunteers as a Bible study leader with former inmates who have graduated from the substance abuse program.
Kelly says that when they first began the Bible study, she had a lot of questions. “Who wrote the Bible? Who decided it was true? My parents were nice people, but we never went to church. I knew nothing about the Bible.”
Kelly tells of her former life, only dabbling in substance abuse but submerged in its culture. Her initial attempts to break free were not very effective.
“I had been through several programs. The disease model, the 12-step model, has such a low rate of success. When I went to Almond Tree, instead of hearing, ‘It’s not your fault,’ I heard it was my fault, and that I needed to do something about it.”
“Now my friends at work view me as a religious freak,” Kelly says.
“I really love this ministry,” says Randy Teachout, who leads a Thursday night Bible study for male inmates at the Howard County Jail. “I get more out of it than I put in it.”
Randy is a graduate of Northland Baptist Bible College who owns a construction business and volunteers for Almond Tree every week, one of 40 people who volunteer for the ministry in some way.
“The men here have respect for you, and they know they have a need,” Randy says of the inmates who participate in his Bible study. “This is the bottom, and they know it.”
Randy tells of a recent opportunity to witness to a prisoner whose crimes were splashed all over the front page of the local newspaper. “I had the privilege of leading him to Christ, two weeks after he committed murder,” Randy says.
Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. Darrell Goemaat is director of photography.