t’s 5:55 on a Saturday night at Prairie Correctional Facility. The mid-November sun has set and the Sabbath has officially passed, but church is about to start in tiny, remote Appleton, Minnesota.
Having passed through three remote-controlled gates, Pastor David Grams stands before one last door, waiting for someone somewhere to flip yet another switch and grant him access to the visitation room.
The door remains locked for a minute or two. Grams peers through a slender window. Inside, it’s business as usual. A half dozen Christian inmates have converted the room into the closest thing possible to a sanctuary. Two columns of chairs are neatly set up for a congregation of 100. A worn and battered lectern is in place up front. A microphone is propped atop the lectern, tethered to a ponderous speaker right out of the 1980s. By the grace of God, inmate Chris Aldrich says to himself, it just might work tonight. To the left of the lectern, an upright piano stands by, ready for duty. Reliable and functional, it was last tuned in . . . well, no one is quite sure.
Grams’s pet project is set up in the back of the room. Seventh-day Adventist books, magazines, and pamphlets are laid out across three 6-foot-long tables—everything from back issues of Adventist Review to new copies of The Desire of Ages to a small stack of handouts titled “One Hundred Bible Facts on the Sabbath Question.”
Grams will exhort his listeners this night, as he does every week,
to take the literature and read. Read in the morning. Read in the evening. Read, read, read. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God,” he is wont to remind his congregation, “a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, KJV).
The door finally opens, and Grams enters the visiting room. Bright-eyed and full of energy, he greets his set-up crew with handshakes and spiritual encouragement. A 45-year veteran of prison ministry, he is entirely in his element. “I hope to God,” he will preach later this night, “that those of us who minister to you see you as God sees you. During the three years that I have been coming here I have been astonished by the changes in you.”
At 6:00 p.m. the visitation door pops open a second time. Three Adventist laypeople stride in, brushing past a cluster of vending machines that include pork rib sandwiches and
caffeinated drinks. “What God has cleansed you must not call common,” a voice once proclaimed to Peter (Acts 10:15, NKJV),* and thus Wendell, Charles, and Pam Hanson heartily greet their prison friends.
* * *
Charles and Wendell Hanson are brothers by birth—
and brothers in Christ. The Artichoke Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church, located 22 miles northwest of the prison, traces its inception to one of their maternal great-grandfathers, Engelbrecht Peterson. As the story is told, Peterson had begun to question the traditional day of worship associated with his Lutheran upbringing. While working on his farm one day, he heard a heavenly voice ask: “Who hath commanded you to observe Sunday?” Upon further review of the Scriptures, Peterson soon committed himself to Sabbathkeeping, and in 1876 he became a charter member of the Artichoke church.
Nearly 130 years later, Pam Hanson (married to Charles in 1995) began to have questions of her own. Specifically, how could their church of 28 members enter the mission field? As Inspiration would have it, in the early summer
of 2005 Grams moved to Appleton just as the Artichoke church was receiving a letter from an inmate at the 1,500-man medium security prison. “Would your church,” the inmate asked, “bring a Seventh-day Adventist meeting to the men at Prairie Correctional Facility?” And just like that, the Lord answered. The proper arrangements were made, and within weeks the church had penetrated prison walls. It had found its mission field.
* * *
At 6:05 a wave of inmates begins to fill the visitation room. Like church on the outside, they arrive with a variety of backgrounds, beliefs, and attitudes. Many of them carry Bibles, grateful to be washed in the blood of Jesus. This weekly Sabbath meeting is the spark that fires their daily cycle of Christian study, prayer, and fellowship. Living examples of one of the apostle Paul’s most challenging
testimonies—“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Phil. 4:11)—they do not take lightly one of Grams’s admonitions: “If you are truly in Christ, you will be men of good works.”
Other men are not as grounded. They are the ones who hurt. As obvious as acne on a teenager, their countenances and body language telegraph the guilt and low self-esteem associated with the haunting memories of past sins. For them especially it seems Lewis E. Jones wrote: “There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r in the precious blood of the Lamb.”†
And then there are those unfortunate souls who will be especially difficult for Grams to reach this night: the bored, the skeptics, and the money changers. The bored are here seeking a break from their televisions and poker games; they’re looking for some live entertainment. The skeptics are here to pick apart foundational Adventist beliefs, particularly the Sabbath, vegetarian diets, and the writings of Ellen White. The money changers have come because this is a convenient place to converse with a friend, exchange information, or settle debts.
* * *
Grams will never forget the night nearly two years ago when two strangers interrupted his meeting with violence. Dispatched by a prison gang leader, they sucker-punched two innocent and unsuspecting congregants during a prebaptism ceremony. The assailants were quickly restrained by other inmates, and peace prevailed in a room packed with convicted felons, but the meeting was nonetheless cut short by prison staff. Grams and the Hansons say they never felt threatened, but the husband of one other Adventist missionary was unnerved by the report of fighting in church and convinced his wife to leave prison ministry to others.
So these are the types of men whom the Artichoke Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church has been called to serve. Many of them love Jesus and follow Him obediently by the power of the Holy Spirit. They observe the Sabbath, and they know “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12, NKJV). And yet they also know what many of you are thinking: can men who have murdered or raped, or sold drugs to children, truly be Christian?
Quite frankly, they are puzzled by the cynicism. They read their Bibles and they note that Moses was a murderer. They see that King David, a man after God’s own heart, was first an adulterer and then a murderer. They understand Peter to be a three-time denier of Christ. And if God can transform Paul from a persecuting Pharisee to a loving apostle, surely He can take a genuinely repentant sex offender and transform him by the renewing of the mind. As much as the sins of these biblical giants harmed others and grieved God, were they not forgiven? Can we not expect to see them too at the resurrection?
The first meetings at Prairie Correctional Facility were little more than Bible studies. Twelve to 15 men attended, some of whom had Adventist backgrounds. Hymns were sung, with Pam Hanson accompanying on a prison keyboard. Grams gave a message. Sabbath school was conducted with the Artichoke Lake volunteers leading. As the months passed, however, attendance rose steadily, from 20 to 30 to 50 to 70, and then 100. By the end of the first year several inmates were stepping into service and leadership positions.
“It’s amazing how word has spread,” says Charles Hanson, a Minnesota grain farmer whose avocations include ornithological taxidermy and weather observation for the National Weather Service. “We have been overwhelmed by the response of the inmates. We didn’t know we would find so many men who had an interest in church. And we’re fortunate to have Dave [Grams] and his ability to spearhead the weekly meetings.”
Thin, spectacled, and squeaky-voiced, the 64-year-old Grams confesses that he last ate meat when Truman was president. Given a choice between criminalizing alcohol or abortion, he would opt for putting the world’s brewers and distillers out of business. The animations that pepper his 45-minute sermons draw frequent and widespread chuckles, but they are chortles of endearment from his congregation of former outlaws.
Richard Christy, who is serving an eight-year sentence on drug charges, smiles when Grams is mentioned. “How would I describe him?” asks Christy. “He’s phenomenal. He’s an outstanding communicator. We see the passion and conviction, and he has the temperament to work with those who are new to the faith. He sees opportunity in almost every situation. He is clearly filled with the Spirit of the Lord.”
* * *
It’s 6:45 p.m. A trio of inmates has finished their reasonable service. Joel Misner says the opening prayer. Keith Hegg makes the announcements. Joshua Sather gives the Scripture reading.
Before launching into his sermon, Grams gives a brief report on a Habitat for Humanity key-giving ceremony in Appleton. “It’s a special thing to dedicate a home for safety,” he says, “not only from drugs, but also from the likes of MTV and Britney Spears.” With satisfaction spreading across his face, Grams notes that the home’s cabinets were built in the prison woodshop by Jody Hawkins, one of Prairie Correctional Facility’s original Adventist members.
Turning to the first chapter of Ephesians, Grams intersperses the inspired words of Paul with his own choice thoughts:
• “You are valued infinitely in Him. Christ wants to give you blessings in heavenly places.”
• “God has called you men to be holy. Receive His holiness, or wholeness.”
• “Listen to what God says, and you will be led in paths of righteousness.”
• “When you get out of prison and have so many more choices than you have now, remember that without God we are all shiftless. He is our direction.”
As the message progresses toward its conclusion at 7:30, many of the men begin to sense that God is blessing them through David Grams. It reminds Richard Christy of his first Adventist meeting here in February 2007.
“It was entirely biblical,” Christy recalls, “and I knew the Spirit of the Lord was working in me. It was real; it wasn’t fluffy. It wasn’t a bunch of feel-good words; it was factual.
“It was the truth, and that is what I was looking for. It was like no other church service I had
It’s 7:45 p.m. Pastor Grams has finished his message, and the weekly exodus quickly ensues. After starting the evening with a hundred inmates, approximately 20 men stay the final hour for the Sabbath school quarterly study. Encouragement is extended for everybody to return on Tuesday morning for Bible study.
* * *
Shortly after the foundation had been set with the Saturday evening meeting, Grams, Pam Hanson, and Dee Berkley agreed to mentor a second, smaller group on Tuesday mornings. Drawing approximately a dozen men each week, it provides an opportunity to delve deeper into biblical truth and the Adventist fundamental doctrines.
When Christmas fell on a Tuesday in 2007, the small group of inmates assumed that Adventist mentoring would be cancelled so their facilitators could spend the morning at home with their families. To their surprise and delight, the meeting was held as usual.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says inmate Vance Pflugrad, a lifelong Adventist. “Nobody would have thought twice about them staying home. For them to come behind these walls on Christmas was an awesome example showing Christ’s love.”
“There was no reason not to,” Grams recalls. “We live in the area and we knew it would be meaningful for the men. It certainly gave my Christmas more meaning.”
For a denomination that may lack the name recognition of Catholic, Lutheran, or Baptist, the Adventists have made their presence known at Prairie Correctional Facility. Through their efforts approximately two dozen men have joined the church, having been baptized or joining by profession of faith. 3ABN is now available on TV in every cell. More than 100 VHS tapes and DVDs are available for viewing in the chapel library. And books by Ellen White and other Adventists are widely read. The most recent addition to the prison’s chapel library: the 10-volume Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, a gift from Charles and Pam Hanson.
* * *
Looking back on 45 years of bringing the gospel to inmates, David Grams understands your reluctance to come minister with him on Saturday nights. For most of you, the prospect of coming to prison is unsettling, even with the assurance that you will be free to go home at the end of the evening. Doors lock solidly behind you, cameras track your every move, and you don’t know what to expect when you come face to face with an inmate who hasn’t smelled freedom since the Carter administration.
“Prison ministry is not for everybody,” Grams concedes, “but the rewards are incredible. For me it’s an exciting thing to hear doors clang behind me. It means I’m getting closer to my cathedral, where I can interact with God’s men, who strengthen me as much as any benefit I can bring to them.”
And speaking of benefits, one inmate has this to say: “My folks keep telling me I’m going to be a preacher,” says Christy, the former drug manufacturer who was sold on the Sabbath message after reading Ten Commandments Twice Removed, by Danny Shelton and Shelley Quinn.
“Mom used to say things about God, but she never knew Jesus. I prayed in my cell for her conversion, and on her third visit here she accepted the Lord. Mom and Dad are going to church now. It’s not Seventh-day Adventist, but I’m working on that.”
* * *
It’s 8:45 p.m. Pastor Grams and the Hansons depart for home through one door. The remaining 20 inmates exit for their cells through another. Somebody somewhere flips a switch, and visitation goes dark. Indeed, for now, the light has left the room.
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright ” 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
†From the hymn “Power in the Blood,” by Lewis B. Jones, 1899; The Heavenly Music Hymnal, 1998. Copyright © 1994: Remnant Publications.
Wendell Pearson is a pseudonym. The author, who anticipates release from prison in 2012, joined the Seveht-day Adventist Church in 2006. This article was printed December 17, 2009.