By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
MOUNTAIN CITY — When Gale Hartley moved to Mountain City nearly five years ago to become pastor of Bethany Baptist Church, he discovered the church had an active prison ministry thanks to the passion of deacon Mike Long.
Long felt called by God to minister to prisoners at Northeast Correctional Complex where its minimum security annex holds approximately 300 offenders and an additional 180 at its Carter County Annex in Roan Mountain.
Long initiated the prison ministry at Bethany Baptist, Hartley said. “When I came he encouraged me to get involved. God had already dealt with my heart and called me to jail and prison ministry years ago while I pastored at East Side Baptist Church in Elizabethton before we went overseas with the International Mission Board,” he recalled.
“I knew God was calling me to go to the prison and share His Word and the gospel.”
Though Long died a few months ago, Hartley regularly visits the prison (along with church members John Brookshire and Richard Pierce) to teach the “Experiencing God” Bible study. Both men had to go through training in order to be volunteers at the prison.
In addition, inmates often come to the church on a release program to work on the church campus. “We feed the prisoners and provide a devotional for them on those occasions,” Hartley said.
He noted the church is grateful for the opportunity to have an impact on the lives of the prisoners. “Our folk are glad to be able to reach out,” Hartley said.
Just because the men are incarcerated does not excuse the church from finding ways to minister and disciple those who are there, Hartley affirmed. “Prison is not an excuse for not sharing the gospel.”
In addition to what the church is doing, Tennessee Baptists also have a role in the ministry at Northeast Correctional Institute, Hartley said. “Tennessee Baptists have had a hand in encouraging these inmates.”
The “Experiencing God” materials are purchased through a grant provided through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions. “The GOTM is helping to share the gospel in our prison,” Hartley noted.
“I become overwhelmed with the deep love for Jesus the inmates express and exhibit in our classes and conversation. Truly many of them are more free than many in our churches.
“All I can do is praise our Lord and Savior for this privilege of sharing along with others this ministry,” Hartley said.