By David Dawson
TRENTON — 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 are on a list to be baptized.
“It was awesome,” said Thomas. “(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 noted. “Some had tears running down their cheeks.”
And the story doesn’t end there. Thomas made sure of that.
When he learned that so many of the inmates were interested in being baptized, he started hashing out a plan to make it happen.
He originally considered using the “portable baptismal pool” that is owned by the jail. But Thomas didn’t think that was feasible, or perhaps even appropriate, for this movement. So, he started to think bigger. Much, much bigger.
“We have a recreational lake here in Gibson County,” he said, “and that’s where we are going to do the baptisms.”
The 40 inmates are scheduled to be bussed to the lake on the night of April 19, and many of them will be baptized by the preacher who led them to Christ on the night of the services.
“The pastors are going to be at the bottom of the ramp, waiting for them,” said Thomas. “It’s going to be a pretty awesome event.”
Inmates were not required to attend the “After-Easter” services, but Thomas estimated that more than 95 percent of them chose to do so.
“They understood it was completely voluntary,” said Thomas. “(We let them know) that if they wanted to stay in their cell, there would be no repercussion.”
FOCUS ON THE FATHER
Songs of praise and worship were sung, and the “old, old story” was told to attendees, some of whom had likely never previously heard it.
Pigg said he used the “After-Easter” sermon as an opportunity to simply share the gospel in a straightforward way.
“I just talked about Jesus,” said Pigg.
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, 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 thier 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), along with speakers and pastors from various other denominations.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The Gibson County correctional complex is one of the larger facilities in West Tennessee. It normally houses about 300 inmates, who are incarcerated for violations that range from blue 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,” said Thomas.
For many years, the complex hosted weekly worship services on Sunday mornings. The services were voluntary, and generally featured different guest preachers each week. However, those services were halted in the spring of 2020, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
It was the absence of those services that sparked the “After-Easter” revival idea, Thomas said.
“Oddly enough, I was sitting in church one Sunday a few weeks prior to Easter,” Thomas recalled. “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.
Thomas 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.
‘COUNT ME IN’
One of the first pastors that Thomas contacted was Pigg, the pastor at Salem Baptist Church. The two men have a long-time connection.
“I have known — and have had a great relationship with — the sheriff for many years, actually most of his entire life,” said Pigg, noting they both are originally from Milan.
When Thomas asked Pigg about the After-Easter service, Pigg said he answered almost before Thomas got the question completed. “To say the least, I was ecstatic,” said Pigg. “I immediately said ‘Yes!’ ”
Denning had the same response when he was invited.
“The minute Paul asked me about it, I replied, ‘I’m in!’ ” said Denning. “You could just sense from the onset that this was a ‘God-thing’! I was reminded of when our Lord was talking about the difference between the sheep and the goats and He said in Matthew 25:36, ‘When I was in prison, you visited Me.’ ”
Pigg said he, too, knew the services had the potential to be a very special event.
“I have been pastoring Salem Baptist Church for nearly 15 years … (but) I have never been asked to do a service of any kind at the jail, much less an Easter service alongside other pastors for the entire inmate residence,” he said.
“I immediately told Sheriff Thomas to put me down for one of the pods, (along with) my associate pastor Todd Kirk, and worship leader Steven Tate.”
That same scenario repeated itself several times: When Thomas reached out to a pastor, they not only agreed to be a part of the services, but also supplied Thomas with names of others who might be interested.
Before long, Thomas 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 from Thomas. 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.”
The gospel group Endless Highway, formerly known as the Joylanders, live in Gibson County, and volunteered to be part of the service.
Thomas also recruited help from his son, who is a junior at the University of Tennessee, where he is vice president of the BCM. He also serves as youth pastor at Elevate Church in Milan.
JUST LIKE JOHN THE BAPTIST
Thomas said the idea of arranging for the inmates to go to the lake for baptisms came to him in the middle of the night. He shared his idea with his staff the following morning.
“They all laughed at me,” said Thomas. “Then they looked at me and said, ‘Wait. You’re serious, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘As a heart attack.’ ”
Thomas said he knew there might be skeptics in the community who would point out that taking inmates to a lake might not sound like the best idea.
“I was prepared for that,” the sheriff said. “And I am fine with it.”
Thomas is inviting several churches in the area to come to the lakeside service, and he hopes to have a large crowd there to cheer when each inmate is baptized.
“I’m expecting a big turnout,” he said. “I’m telling the churches, ‘Let’s support these men, let’s cheer them on as they walk back up that boat ramp. This is just one way that we can show them that just because they’re incarcerated and have violated the laws of the land, we still love them and we want them to to have eternal life. That’s it in a nutshell.”
MORE TO COME
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.
Pigg said he is already making plans to be involved again next year. “You’d better believe it,” he said. “This preacher is hooked — and booked! I want in on it every time. I am so grateful to the Lord for this great privilege.”
Denning said that he, too, would jump at the chance to preach at the facility again next year.
“I will absolutely be there,” said Denning. “I realize that these guys are incarcerated due to sinful and hurtful choices they have made in life. However, Jesus loves that inmate with just as much compassion as He loves this preacher.
Thomas noted that some of the pastors are already considering other ways to reach the inmates.
“Several of them said they would like to maybe have a fall revival and a spring revival,” Thomas said. “So, that might be something we try to put together.”
But the Easter services? That’s a definite, he said.
“It’s 100 percent, for sure, going to happen that we’ll do another Easter service in this same way,” Thomas said. “It was too phenomenal to be a one-time thing.” B&R