It is a familiar routine. First there is the sound of an obnoxious buzzer, then the sudden firing of a heavy deadbolt that unlocks the gray steel door separating freedom from incarceration. The closing slam reverberates down the gray cinderblock hall sending an authoritative reminder that freedom is not an option.
Photo by David LaMar
Dale Lusk leads Mohammed through a discipleship study. Last names are withheld since the boys are minors. Lusk and other volunteers from Swannsylvania Baptist Church and New Market Baptist Church in east Tennessee serve more than 180 hours a month in a nearby juvenile detention facility sharing the gospel.
Buzz. Fire. Open. Slam.
Buzz. Fire. Open. Slam.
All day. Buzz. Fire. Open. Slam.
The blast of the buzzer has no effect on Dale Lusk, however. The process is routine after hundreds of visits. Lusk’s focus lies beyond the door. Like the certainty of God’s own mercy, he knows there is a boy waiting for him to enter a world secured by the looping coils of concertina wire.
“The boys at this facility range from 13 to 18 years old,” Lusk said. “They are brought here after three felonies for whatever types of crimes they’ve done.”
The foreigner to this world can’t initially comprehend the reality of his statement. One hears the words while looking at pimple-faced teens who appear more like they ought to be at a dance in the school gymnasium after a football game working up enough nerve to awkwardly ask the cute girl standing by the punch bowl if she wants to dance.
“Look at them. They’re just boys,” a visitor whispers with disbelief. “Seriously. Felonies?”
Yes, felonies. Serious felonies, like murder and rape. Others not so serious, like being in the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time, but felonies nonetheless. So many of these boys don’t know their fathers, or maybe they do, but their fathers are incarcerated in an adult facility somewhere. Maybe they were bounced around foster care after being removed from a home where parents cooked crystal meth. Or maybe they are kids who come from good homes but who rebelled against their parents and then made some really bad decisions.
“Whatever the case, when they come in they are full of rage, full of anger, full of resentment,” Lusk said. “But no matter how tough they may seem, they’re scared. They are just boys.”
Photo by David LaMar
Dale Lusk, right, baptizes Anthony (last name withheld) during a service at Swannsylvania Baptist Church in Dandridge, Tenn. Volunteers from Swannsylvania and New Market Baptist Church invest more than 180 hours per month ministering to boys at a nearby juvenile detention facility. Anthony and 30-plus other boys have been baptized in three years and more are scheduled for baptism this fall. Lonnie Cloninger, also a prison ministry team member, assists with the baptism.
Lusk isn’t a guard or a warden or even a counselor with the Department of Children’s Services evaluating the mental state of those incarcerated by the detention system. He’s not even a vocational minister. He’s actually retired after 33 years with Norfolk Southern Railroad managing its natural resources. These days he’s an active member at Swannsylvania Baptist Church in Dandridge, Tenn., where he and dozens of other volunteers from Swannsylvania and New Market Baptist churches spend about 180 ministry and mentoring hours per month serving the boys behind the gray doors.
“There wasn’t much ministry going on at the facility when we moved here,” Lusk said. He and his wife Judy settled in east Tennessee to be closer to family. “My pastor shared there was a good opportunity at the boys’ detention facility. I’ve always worked with the youth in my church and when I saw the need I just felt like that’s what God was calling me to do.”
Lusk never asks what the boys are “in for.” He says he doesn’t want to know. “I know me,” he said. “And I want to be able to share the love of Christ with these boys without judging them.”
Lusk slowly gained the trust of the boys and the staff. A Monday night Bible study began, and as boys came to Christ, Lusk added a Tuesday night discipleship training class. Three years later, 76 boys have been reached through the ministry, 30 have completed an 11-week discipleship training class and 30 have been baptized at Swannsylvania Baptist Church. Six more will be baptized in November.
Anthony is one of the boys who is glad that wave after wave of church members wash into the facility bearing a flood of Living Water. “When I wound up here I blamed God for everything,” Anthony said. Last names are withheld to protect the privacy of minors.
“I had real bad hate toward God. But when I started coming to the Bible study, Brother Dale and the others didn’t do anything but show me love. It wasn’t the kind of love you can explain. It was like a heavenly love. It was like God loved me all at once. He showed it through Dale.”
Photo by David LaMar
Jan Rag, a member at Swannsylvania Baptist Church in Dandridge, Tenn., leads the congregation in singing "Amazing Grace" during a baptismal service for a group of boys from a nearby juvenile detention facility who have been disciple in their newfound faith in Christ.
The ministry has gained significant traction in the past year. A need for Bibles and discipleship materials quickly emerged. Lusk was faced with the dilemma of rationing Bibles, having to decide who he thought genuinely needed one.
However, Tennessee Baptists’ giving through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions, goldenoffering.org, played a significant part in the ministry by providing funds for the Bibles and discipleship materials Lusk needed.
“As Tennessee Baptists give through the Golden Offering, we’re seeing lives changed,” said Joe Sorah, who heads up the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s compassion ministry. “Through their generosity, Tennessee Baptists are able to come alongside ministries like this and offer support that makes a tangible and eternal difference.”
Anthony is just one of several boys baptized this year, and he didn’t miss the symbolism of having his chains removed upon entering Swannsylvania Baptist Church the night of his baptism.
“Coming out of that water was something else,” Anthony said. “I didn’t feel like a human was lifting me up; I felt like God was. It was refreshing. I know God was there with me. The only way I know to describe it is that it was a holy moment – probably the best time in my life.”
But it isn’t all angels singing and comfortable Christian living when the boys return to the facility, return to their reality. There can be intense verbal and physical persecution. It is certainly a point of prayer for those ministering to the boys, which is why the ladies involved with Swannsylvania’s Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) pray for them. In fact, the WMU and others pray intensely and regularly for God’s protection of those who now belong to Him and for those who need an encounter with Christ. And they pray for each of them by name.
“We serve a God of second chances,” Lusk said. “And these boys need a second chance. God is amazingly wonderful and full of mercy. We just have to be willing to get beyond the walls of our churches and serve.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Chris Turner is director of communications for the Tennessee Baptist Convention. This article first appeared in the Baptist and Reflector, baptistandreflector.org, newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.)