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Developing leaders in Georgia's largest prison


Jim Burton

Daniell Baptist Association lay church planters Jerry Davis, right, and Jake Hightower, second from right, greet Casimiro Ramirez, left, and his son at their Wheeler County home. Davis and Hightower are working with other volunteers from the association’s churches to establish The Way Community Church in the trailer park.

AILEY — This past Christmas an inmate at the Wheeler Correctional Facility in Alamo received his first-ever letter since incarceration 12 years ago. That letter was a Christmas card from women in Daniell Baptist Association (DBA).

Associational Missionary Robby Smith smiles when he tells that story. Smith regularly sees the fruit of his association’s ministries through the School of Leadership Development at the medium-security facility. With a growing commitment from the 51 churches in Montgomery, Treulten, Wheeler, and Toombs counties, plus part of Emmanuel County, the School of Leadership Development represents just one way that DBA is finding new ways to reach communities for Christ in southeast central Georgia.

The largest industries in the association are farms and prisons. Wheeler Correctional Facility is a private correctional facility run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), operated under contract with the state of Georgia. The facility has more than 3,000 inmates and is the state’s largest prison. The warden has designated one dorm as the Higher Ground Dorm, which is where DBA operates its leadership school.

Jim Burton

Stanley Hutto, left, and Mission Service Corps missionary Keith Horne have led bi-weekly Bible studies at Wheeler Correctional Facility in Alamo for several years and have seen as many as 19 professions of faith in one day. Besides their ministry at the state prison, they are lay church planters working to start a church in the Pendleton Creek area of Toombs County.

Smith and other associational leaders have worked hard to establish a trust relationship with the correctional facility. By tapping the strength of his churches, particularly Tabernacle Baptist Church, which has a men’s group experienced in cooking for large events, Smith led the association to host the prison’s 423 employees last February. Prison staff received copies of the Jesus film, Bibles, and Gospel tracks.

Not only does the staff now show appreciation for the ministry, but so do inmates. Smith notes that workers and inmates often stand and applaud when volunteers walk to the Higher Ground Dorm.

The leadership curriculum covers basic discipleship and teaches participants how to lead a church. Smith expects many will plant churches when they leave prison.

“These men are experiencing what forgiveness really is,” Smith says. “They are hungry. They dig. They do their homework.” As Chris Vinson, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Vidalia, recently told the participating inmates, their feet might be bound but not their heart or prayers.

“A man in prison for 27 years shared last week that he felt called to preach before he got into prison,” Smith adds. The leadership training school has helped this man rediscover his calling, and he now plans to plant a church upon his release.

The correctional facility has multiple dorms besides Higher Ground. After nine months in the leadership school, inmates go back into other dorms where they can start ministering to inmates.

Jim Burton

Daniell Baptist Association Director of Missions Robby Smith, right, visits with Wheeler Correctional Facility Warden Jason Medlin, left, and Chaplain Ron Day, center, at the Alamo location.

The prisoners have no money or supplies even to take notes in class. Smith is grateful for $10,000 allotted by the Georgia Baptist Convention for the prison ministry. With those Cooperative Program funds, the association is able to purchase Bibles, concordances, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries in both English and Spanish. Plus, the funding provides pencils, highlighters, paper, and books for their courses.

“The prisoners were emotional on the first day of class when they realized that the association and the GBC were providing these classes and textbooks for them,” Smith said. DBA partners with Associational Missions Ministries to offer the courses.

Wheeler Correctional Facility Warden Jason Medlin appreciates the foundation laid in the life of an inmate through learning programs like the School of Leadership Development. And he notes that the Higher Ground Dorm has lower incidents of violence while being cleaner and better kept than other dorms.

Besides Smith’s vision to see churches established within the correctional facility, the association is planting community churches. Journey Church in Vidalia was the association’s first new church in 50 years that did not result from a church split. Currently, DBA has Mission Service Corps missionaries and other lay church planters working diligently to start new churches for the association’s estimated 41,000 unchurched residents. The average reading level in the association is third grade, Smith says.

DBA has adopted an Acts 1:8 strategy. As the association’s first full-time missionary, Smith has led multiple mission trips for his churches to both domestic and international destinations.

“Mission trips cause people to be more missions-minded,” Smith says.

A self-described “jack of all trades and master of music,” Smith’s vocational ministry since earning a church music degree with a religious education minor at Southwestern Seminary eventually led him from a major city to a rural setting. The challenge is no less daunting with 41,000 unchurched residents being served by 51 churches, 40 of which have bivocational pastors.

“God didn’t put us here to lead in the ‘50s,” Smith says. “We’re finding new ways to reach the communities for Christ.”

Jim Burton is a freelance photojournalist based in Cumming and the bivocational pastor of Sugarloaf International Fellowship in Suwanee. State Missionary Frank Nuckolls also contributed to this story.