“Can we go to church with you?”The request from inmates at the Cordova Jail took Chief Nick Smith by surprise last year.These inmates had proved their trustworthiness by cutting grass and picking …
“Can we go to church with you?”
The request from inmates at the Cordova Jail took Chief Nick Smith by surprise last year.
These inmates had proved their trustworthiness by cutting grass and picking up trash around the city, which gave them a chance to breath fresh air and a sense of pride as community members commented on their work.
Their request to attend church came shortly after Smith had launched the Mercy Project, an experiment aimed at reducing recidivism by helping those with an addiction get into treatment. An extension of the Mercy Project offered to help inmates who were sentenced to serve a significant amount of time behind bars in Cordova get their GED, create a resume or practice their job interviewing skills.
After 14 years in law enforcement, Smith had shifted his focus from racking up arrests, which looked good on paper but had no discernible impact on the behavior of the people cycling in and out of jail, to embracing an approach that he hoped would address the underlying problem of rampant substance abuse.
Mercy had its limits, though, and Smith wasn’t wild about the idea of bringing a group of inmates to church.
“My initial response was no. Then I got to thinking about it, and I had them get their family to bring them some regular clothes. I picked three of them up in my personal vehicle one morning and took them to church,” Smith said.
As the praise and worship portion of the service got underway, all three made their way to the altar.
“We kind of joked that it was either the Holy Spirit or one got convicted and took them all because they were shackled together,” Smith said.
Within weeks, the number of inmates who wanted to attend Sanctuary Church of God with Smith grew to more than 10.
Pastor Keith Banks offered to send the church’s van to pick them up.
Transportation was only one problem. With a group of that size, Smith would have to require the inmates to come in their orange jumpsuits.
Banks and the members of his congregation agreed to host a “Go Orange” Sunday in which everyone in the church would wear orange so that the inmates would feel welcome.
Over the next several months, some of the inmates made professions of faith and were baptized by Banks.
Church members also had opportunities to minister to family members of some of the inmates who began attending services with them.
Banks said there was no resistance to having inmates in the pews each Sunday because the congregation hoped that hearing the gospel would have a positive impact on those who were ready to take their lives in a different direction.
“Some people who don’t come to our church asked our ladies if they locked up their purses in a safe. They said, ‘No, we put our purse on the pew right beside us.’ Our church was so receptive to it that when it got to the point that they could sign themselves out and there weren’t a lot of people in jail anymore, our people were discouraged. It was amazing to see God’s love being shown through people,” Banks said.
Though the experience only lasted a few months, it convinced Smith that more partnerships with churches are needed if the Mercy Project is to succeed.
Since the effort launched in February 2017, 21 people from all over Walker County and several from outside the county have reached out for help through the Cordova Police Department, and 16 have completed either a short-term or long-term treatment program.
“Overall, I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do. Twenty one is a lot more people than I expected to come through the front door. As far as Cordova is concerned, none of them have been back to our jail,” Smith said.
Banks is one of four area pastors who make up the Mercy Project’s Care Team.
Team members help in a variety of ways, from driving individuals to treatment to checking in with them on a regular basis as they seek to lead a life of sobriety.
However, recovery requires a broader support system than one person can provide.
As a result, Smith is stepping up his efforts to get more churches involved in the Mercy Project.
A congregation’s involvement could be as simple as creating care packages that individuals could take with them when they enter treatment or as essential as helping individuals find job opportunities.
“We aren’t asking for church’s money. We just want them to care about these people who are getting clean and sober and excited about starting a new life, but then life beats them down and they end up going back to the places they don’t need to be because they don’t have anywhere else to turn,” Smith said.
Banks shares Smith’s hope that other churches will get involved, whether it’s through driving individuals to a treatment center, putting together a care package or donating slightly used dress clothes to those in recovery seeking employment.
“These people are genuinely hurting and need help. If you reach out to them, they’ll reach back and you’ll see a huge difference,” Banks said.