VANDALIA – Nearly 900 women from a prison here heard about the love of Christ one week before Easter during an event organized annually by volunteers from First Baptist Church, Vandalia.
According to Tommy Barnhart, the chaplain at the Women’s Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Correctional Center in Vandalia, the First Baptist Church’s “Agape Festival” is the largest ministry event that takes place in the prison each year. Barnhart, a member of Centennial Baptist Church, Mexico, is certified as a chaplain by the North American Mission Board and is one of several Missouri Baptist chaplains who serve in prisons throughout the state.
According to Barnhart, the need in Missouri’s prisons is great.
“One of the exciting things about prison ministry is that I don’t have to talk offenders into believing that they’re sinners,” Barnhart said. “They’ve been locked behind a fence and told, ‘You don’t belong in society.’ … That is a good starting place. If someone knows that they’re a sinner, they know that they need a Savior.”
Opportunities for ministry are therefore great, he said, and Missouri Baptists throughout the state are reaching into prisons with the gospel.
“Missouri Baptist churches are very active in prison ministry,” Barnhart said. “The Baptist church here in Vandalia is very active at this prison.”
Two auxiliary chaplains – both members of First Baptist Church, Vandalia – work at the Women’s Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Correctional Center. Also, 14 trained volunteers from First Baptist Church serve in the prison, leading Bible studies for the women and helping to organize annual events like the “Agape Festival” – which usually takes place during the Christmas season, but was postponed this winter because of bad weather. Nearly a dozen other members from the church want to volunteer with a reentry program called “Beauty for Ashes.”
“We really feel blessed because we have a mission field right here in our back yard,” said Betty Kristofferson, who directs First Baptist’s prison ministry along with her husband Randall. She recalled how Jesus once told a parable in which He said, “I was in prison, and you visited Me” (Matt. 25:36).
“That was one of the things that Jesus mentioned,” she said. “And often that is one of the things that we don’t think about.”
But Kristofferson was able to express the sentiment of members of First Baptist, Vandalia, who have remembered Missouri’s prisoners and visited them for nearly a dozen years: “We all consider it a joy.”