Going to church on Easter Sunday wasn’t an option for the inmates at the Gibson County jail.
So, Sheriff Paul Thomas decided to bring church to the inmates.
What happened next was, as Thomas put it, “just a God thing.” And something Thomas will never forget.
For several hours on the Monday night after Easter, the Gibson County correctional complex took on the feel of an old-time tent revival, with the complex simultaneously hosting 11 separate services – led by 11 guest speakers and 11 worship teams – in each of the pods at the facility.
More than 100 inmates made decisions for Christ that night, with some making professions of faith and others making rededications. Forty of the men were put on a list to be baptized.
“It was awesome,” Thomas said. “(Holding these services) was something the Lord had just really laid on me to do. I knew that I might get some pushback or some criticism, but I just knew I had to be obedient to it.”
Joel Pigg, pastor of Salem Baptist Church, was one of the pastors involved with the “After-Easter” services. He said he was amazed with how engaged the inmates were during the service and invitation.
“Not only was I awed at their response, but also in awe of the level of emotional sincerity of their response,” Pigg said. “Some had tears running down their cheeks.”
Inmates were not required to attend the After-Easter services, but Thomas estimated that more than 95% of them chose to do so.
“They understood it was completely voluntary,” he said. “(We let them know) that if they wanted to stay in their cell, there would be no repercussion.”
Even though the setting was a jailhouse, the After-Easter services were not unlike the traditional services that took place at churches a day earlier.
Songs of praise and worship were sung, and the gospel was preached to some who had likely never heard it.
Pigg said he used the sermon as an opportunity to simply share the gospel in a straightforward way.
“I just talked about Jesus,” he said.
Pigg, who had been preaching a series about the crucifixion and the resurrection at his church, said he boiled down the series to one message for the inmates.
“I had originally thought of sharing about all of my shenanigans as a teenager and how far God has brought me today,” he said. “But then, God spoke to my heart and said ‘Joel, I am not sending you there to talk about you, I am sending you there to talk about me.’”
Dale Denning, pastor of Elevate church in Milan, Tenn., was also one of the guest pastors for the services.
Denning said that when he pulled out his Bible at the first part of his sermon, four of the inmates got up from their seats and went to their cells.
“I thought to myself, ‘Boy, these guys don’t even want to hear the Word of God,’” he said. “Then they all returned with their Bibles.”
In addition to Pigg and Denning, other Tennessee Baptist pastors included Steve Hemann (Clear Creek Baptist Church, Dyer) and Ronnie Coleman (SoulQuest Church, Jackson), who joined speakers and pastors from various other denominations.
The Gibson County Correctional Complex in west Tennessee is large. It normally houses about 300 inmates, who are incarcerated for violations ranging from white collar crime to hardcore felonies.
“We’ve got some guys who are in here for writing bad checks and some who are awaiting trial for murder,” Thomas said.
For many years, the complex hosted weekly worship services on Sunday mornings. The services were voluntary, and generally featured different guest preachers each week. The COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to those services in the spring of 2020.
“Oddly enough, I was sitting in church one Sunday a few weeks prior to Easter,” Thomas said. “I honestly felt like I was daydreaming, but my chief deputy told me later, ‘You weren’t daydreaming; you were meditating.’ So, that’s what I’m going with. Either way, it just was kind of laying on me that we needed to do something (at the jail).”
Glancing around the church that day, Thomas took note of how many people were in the sanctuary.
“I thought to myself, ‘Man, people are starting to come back to church (after COVID),’” he said. “Society is trying to get back to normal. The economy is trying to climb back. Maybe it’s time to start back having church at the jail. And I thought, ‘Easter’s coming soon. What better time to do it?’”
After going through several different scenarios in his mind, Thomas formed a plan to host a one-night revival in each of the pods at the jail.
At that point, Thomas said he had only one more hurdle to clear: “I just needed 11 pastors to do it,” he said with a laugh.
He soon began doing the legwork to recruit the pastors. He started by reaching out to the owner of a Christian radio station in Milan. The radio station owner supplied Thomas with the names and contact information of several local pastors. And with that, the ball was rolling.
When Thomas reached out to a pastor, he not only agreed to be a part of the services, but also supplied Thomas with names of others who might be interested. Before long, he had the 11 pastors lined up. And he didn’t stop there.
“As I continued to think about the services, it came to my mind that one of my favorite parts about church is the music,” he said. “The music can kind of set the tone before the pastor ever takes the pulpit. So, I decided to have a praise and worship leader with each pastor.”
This required more legwork. But once again, things quickly fell into place, and the services began to take shape.
“Some of the pastors brought somebody with them,” Thomas said. “And for the pastors who didn’t have anybody available, we found singers and musicians who could do it.”
Thomas said he plans for the After-Easter services to become a tradition. He jokingly said he has little choice in the matter; he has to do it.
“If I didn’t do it again, my staff and all these pastors would vote me out of office,” he said with a laugh.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Dawson is a communications specialist with the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.)