Prisoners find spiritual inspiration behind bars

Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2002

BETHEL (AP) -- In a large gymnasium a group of 20 young men and women sit on benches, their heads bowed into hymnals as their voices rise and fall along with the notes of ''Pass me not.''

They could be mistaken for members of a Yupik gospel group, or a church congregation, were it not for the blue and yellow cotton uniforms worn by inmates at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Correctional Center.

Each Saturday, the inmates gather for two hours of Bible study, prayer and song led by Fred Broerman, the jail's chaplain coordinator.

The state Department of Corrections chaplaincy program began in 1980. Currently 1,200 volunteers, representing more than 200 churches and religious organizations, travel to prisons, jails and halfway houses to offer spiritual services to people incarcerated across the state.

The inter-denominational program guarantees a fundamental constitutional right: being able to practice their religion of choice, said Mike Ensch, chaplaincy administrator for the Department of Corrections.

It also aids in rehabilitation, Ensch said.

''We believe for inmates who are serious about making a personal change and choose a spiritual path, that religion and faith are powerful change factors,'' Ensch said.

Clergy and lay leaders, such as Billy O'Brien of the United Pentecostal Church and Rodney Thomas of the Assembly of God, visit YKCC weekly.

''A lot of times, especially before sentencing, there is a lot of heart searching going on,'' Broerman said.

''I'm pretty young to be in here and I'm in here for something that is real bad,'' said 17-year-old Michael Kashatok, as he fingered a white ivory cross hanging from his neck. ''When I am feeling real depressed about leaving my family or about being in here, and Fred or someone comes in on a spiritual visit, it makes me feel a lot better.''

Several inmates nodded as Kashatok described the depression he felt during long hours in a cell.

''God comes not for the righteous, but for those who are lost,'' said one inmate who went by the nickname Kookie.

Broerman agreed. He sees his role in the jail as less of a leader and more of an objective observer, one who is able to offer spiritual insight inmates might not have considered before, he said.

''One thing I want to emphasize is that I don't pretend to be any better than any of these guys. I've made mistakes, too, in my life,'' Broerman said. ''Except for the grace of God, there go I. I could have ended up in prison myself, anyone could have.''

During a recent service, inmates chose the hymns.

A harmonious chorus of voices belted out the hymns ''Power in the Blood,'' ''Victory in Jesus'' and ''Fly Away.''

The tone of the singing and study was serious. Any mischief that came from the room was polite, guarded, more the antics of a high school auditorium than a jail gymnasium.

''I come here because I like to be around positive people,'' said an inmate who went by the nickname Wild Bill. ''Sometimes when I come in here, I am all tensed up, but when I come in here and hear the Lord's word, then when I go back to the mod I feel better.''

Not all of the inmates at Broerman's services share the same faith.

Wild Bill, a Yupik Eskimo, is Russian Orthodox.

''In my culture, where I come from, we believe in the creator. Before my people knew how to read the Bible they found meaning in the stars, in the wind, in the weather, in the trees,'' he said. ''We are all part of the Lord and what he created.''

Broerman, who originally started volunteering on death row in a Mississippi prison, incorporates what he hears from the inmates into his own spiritual life. ''Sometimes they will find something, some gem of truth in the scripture I have not seen before,'' he said.

Broerman teaches that anyone inside prison could be free by embracing Christ.

''Human beings are addictive by nature,'' he said. ''We all have to get addicted to something. My focus is to get people addicted to God, to get them to develop an abiding relationship with God through Christ.''

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