Over the past year, Chuck Latham has found himself looking through barbed wire, ministering
to prisoners he hopes can change the lives of others after their reentry into society.
Because they have great testimonies.
Through the First Baptist Church Prison Serve program, and as part of the church’s
prison ministry, this past year has found Latham altering his outreach. No longer allowed
inside prisons due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Latham has gone from gathering volunteers,
visiting prisons, mentoring and providing hope and the gospel, to finding a way to do that
behind fences and locked doors.
“All of a sudden, I can’t do what I know to do in prison ministry,” he said. “But Covid opened a door of ministry I had not seen before. I asked God, ‘What am I supposed to be doing now?’
“Traditional ministry has changed in that we have to be creative. We have outdoor worship services now. You stand outside the gates and the inmates come out into the yard and you serve them and have worship and activities all socially distanced. We… mentor them into Christ so when they come out, they’re better.”
Prison ministry has been a part of FBC since the 1980s. Its Prison Ministry is described as: Being Jesus with “skin on” for those in prison, those released from prison, and their families, while honoring victims of crimes and those who work in criminal justice.
The goal of the FBC Prison Ministries is to ensure affirming relationships with prison chaplains in the River Region correctional institutions, deepen inmate family support through direct Angel Tree contact and other ministries, and best-match its capabilities with existing needs, including partnerships with other ministries.
Asked why he does this work, Latham said, “One, we’re instructed to do so from a biblical perspective. I don’t think Christ went through all He did for us to sit back and enjoy the fruits of that without doing the work of the kingdom.
“I like what God likes and He likes the poor, the oppressed, the widows, the inmates. We are here as part of that ministry, to do what pleases the Father.”
Prison ministry is not what Latham signed up for in life. His plan was to get a small church somewhere – it certainly wasn’t in his plan to minister to prisoners.
He brings to FBC 20 years of experience, having worked at the Maxwell Federal Prison Camp for two decades, and where most of his time was spent teaching Bible classes and facilitating and helping with some of their services.
Prior to Covid in early 2020, First Baptist had 11 servant leaders – one director, an administrative assistant, an Operation Angel Tree coordinator, seven instructors for Pathway to Freedom classes, an assistant chaplain, and two worship leaders – to serve incarcerated men and women in six correctional facilities in the River Region (Kilby, Staton, Tutwiler Main, Tutwiler Annex, Montgomery Women’s Facility, and the Montgomery County Jail).
Through this, an untold number of inmates made decisions to follow Christ.
During a recent Christmas season, over 100 First Baptist members, working with Prison Fellowship, gave Christmas gifts to 110 children of incarcerated parents.
The majority of First Baptist volunteers have taught inmates in Pathway to Freedom courses (founded by FBC member Ken Brothers, and which was handed over to another prison ministry program, We Care), a program designed to empower inmates with Christian discipleship and life skills to advance their success when they return to free communities.
And enter Latham a year ago. He never imagined his time with Prison Serve would quickly be outside of prison walls.
But that’s where opportunities began.
Recently, Prison Serve rolled out a new online training website for the Alabama Department of Corrections staff – https://www.adocvolunteering.com – and soon thousands of volunteers will go through training rather than having to drive miles and miles, plus pay for lodging expenses to attend live prison ministry training.
“This new aspect of prison ministry is a fast-coming reality,” Latham said. “We have an online system now. The grain of our prison ministry volunteers are usually older folks.”
Online training opens the door and provides career opportunities to a younger generation. They are learning, and they are being mentored.
FBC has had about 15 volunteers enter institutions and jails, witnessing to anywhere between 20 and 50 people. But now,
“That’s the reach we had pre-Covid. Thousands of volunteers are going to be going to the website … and touching thousands more in about 25 facilities throughout the state of Alabama. That’s how far this reach has grown.”
Providing this outreach helps reduce the recidivism rate. There’s also a social and societal benefit. A moral benefit. And Latham said families left behind are also supported.
When prisoners served are released, they become a ministry. They share their testimony to those who thought they were a castaway. They turn around and help others. It’s about taking an impossible situation and turning it around.
“They become a ministry to those of us who think we’re okay and we don’t have issues,” Latham said. “To hear how God works in someone’s life who is a castaway has got to give you the incentive to say you want to be a part of that, or you can use that testimony to improve your own life.”
Prison Serve, Latham said, is what Jesus has outlined for people to do as Christians. In general, it’s the redemption for those in society.
“He is a better husband and father because of the ministry in prison,” Latham said.
But it’s not just about FBC. Prison ministry is a community connection, he said. It is seeing people come up to the razor wire and giving their life to God. All of that comes from a community opening up.
“How does it feel when you do something nice for someone and you know it’s going to please your father?” Latham asked. “I don’t think He wants us visiting the poor and being benevolent to inmates and prisoners just to be doing it.”
Like the “Parable of the Talents,” Latham is an investor.
“I tell them, you have a greater testimony than I do,” he said. “I’m just trying to earn interest. Because if you leave this place, whoever you touch and whoever you lead to Christ, I get interest, and I get to enjoy that.
“You have every denomination all rolled up into that one chapel, and you have to figure out how you’re all going to work together for the greater part of the kingdom.”