NOTE: Photographs are available for use with this story.
A UMNS Feature By Annette Spence Bender*
They look tough at first, with their muscle shirts, tattoos and striped prison pants. Ask, and the inmates might tell you why they're serving time: selling pot, facilitating murder, or aggravated rape and kidnapping.
It's a beautiful day in Mountain City, Tenn., as a prison guard watches the men put up dry wall and install window casings at Valley View United Methodist. Nearby, churchwomen are laying out a home-cooked meal in the fellowship hall. The men might have to be tough at Northeastern Correctional Complex, the 1,700-inmate facility where they'll return at the end of the day, but here they are humble, one could even say sweet.
"These prisoners are so tender," said the Rev. Bill Cahill, Mountain City Circuit pastor. "Our ladies get a blessing out of them coming here."
For more than a year, Cahill has managed to get his Abingdon District churches - Valley View, Doe Valley and Shouns -- on the schedule of a community service crew from Northeastern that does short-term construction projects. It's a terrific arrangement. The churches buy their own supplies and provide the inmates' meals. They save thousands of dollars on skilled labor - and get a chance to minister to people who obviously appreciate it.
"They treat us so good," says Rick Latham, 46, a native of Townsend, Tenn. "They want to feed us everything you can imagine, all home-cooked. I love it, but it makes me homesick."
Inmates have to work their way up a point system and demonstrate a level of skill before they can be placed on one of five construction crews at Northeastern, according to Sgt. Bill Williams, who schedules and oversees the projects.
Crew members said they like being on the outside, working with their hands, breathing fresh air. They look forward to Monday morning. They use words like "tense" and "stressful" to describe where they spend their nights.
"This is as close to freedom as you can get when you're doing time," said Mark Brown, 32, of Green Bay, Wis. When he gets out of Northeastern -- maybe in two months, probably in three years - the experience he's gained as a dry-wall worker will come in handy. Until his release, Brown likes helping Valley View members and other nonprofit groups in the area. Like the other men, he's proud of the buildings he's worked on. "It gives my life meaning," he said. "I'm doing something purposeful for somebody now."
Parishioners aren't supposed to witness to the inmates, Cahill said, but the women who cook for the inmates feel so close to them over time, "they can't help but share the love of Jesus."
"They are so gracious and respectful and always thankful," said Valley View member Pauline Phillippi of the men who have replaced the roof and built a garage for the parsonage. "We thoroughly enjoy having them here."
The Mountain City Circuit churches have also created ministries for inmates' families recently relocating to the area, collecting clothes, opening a food pantry and donating school supplies. The Holston Annual (regional) Conference of the United Methodist Church recently offered to send the inmates' children to Camp Ahistadi for a free week of summer camp.
Some communities complain about having a prison nearby, "but this community has been blessed by it," said Abingdon District Superintendent Brenda Carroll. "They've been changed as they've discovered new ministries to serve these men and their families. It's a beautiful thing to see."
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*Bender is editor of The Call, the newspaper of the United Methodist Church's Holston Annual Conference.