MERCED There is a spiritual revival going on at the John Latorraca Adult Correctional Facility on Sandy Mush Road in the El Nido area, James Sanders, chaplain for the Merced County Jail Ministry, believes.
Sanders said easily 15 to 20 percent of the prisoners at the county's jail facility are Christians and another 20 percent are interested in the Christian message. He visits the jails nearly every day.
"There are dorms there on fire for the Gospel and they're hungry for the word of God," Sanders said. The jail ministry started 23 years ago by the late Bill King works with about 650 prisoners, most all serving time for felony offenses. These prisoners are at the Sandy Mush facility, the jail in downtown Merced and Merced County Juvenile Hall.
At first, Carole King would accompany her husband to the jail. She ultimately became the women's chaplain and now works closely with Debbie Newman, also a women's chaplain.
King said her husband, a former minister in Armona near Hanford, fell in love with the jail ministry. She said it is God's call on her life and she wouldn't do anything else.
Sanders said the jail ministry has 25 volunteers. He is the chaplain not only for the prisoners but also their families and correctional officers. One of his duties is to notify prisoners about deaths in their families.
"For all the negatives we hear, the Sandy Mush jail is at the tipping point for revival and change," Sanders said. "Most are sick and tired of doing the same thing and they want to do better."
Newman said female jail prisoners have emotional struggles. When she and King visit them in their dorms on Mondays, the prisoners don't want to let them leave.
"We love them when they're unlovable," Newman said. "We try to see every woman every week. We love them; we care and they know it. We just plant the seeds and sometimes see the harvest."
Newman said she has never been threatened in the jail.
King said she has never been afraid while locked in the dorm with the prisoners. She hopes to get prisoners to lead Bible studies with their fellow inmates.
Raymond Lee, a state parole agent, has been the chairman of the jail ministry's board since joining the group years ago. He said he has had the privilege of praying with many of the prisoners he may have sent to jail.
Carole King, 75, said she literally has seen miracles arise from the jail ministry, witnessing lives changed through their faith in Jesus Christ. She said the jail staff and correctional officers have been wonderful in supporting their work.
"I know what God is capable of and he is a God of second chances, and third and fourth ones," Lee said.
Sanders, the chaplain for nearly two years, is hoping to transition with technology and see development of a website for the jail ministry. He also hopes to find more volunteers and board members who are a good fit for that type of ministry. He networks with other jail chaplains from Stanislaus to Tulare counties, to find out what strategies are effective.
"We look beyond the faults and failures of people and see their need for Christ," Sanders said.
One of his highlights last year was meeting a former prisoner at his church and leading the man's wife to become a Christian.
About 115 supporters get a regular jail ministry newsletter and about 25 local churches support their outreach, Sanders said.
Newman is proud of the jail ministry's history and its potential.
"Bill King was an incredible man of God," Newman said, "and his mantle truly has been passed to Chaplain James."
King said she and Newman do spiritual counseling with inmates, pray for them and facilitate Bible studies. They also provide reading material for the inmates along with Bibles. The jail ministry also oversees the GED program along with a drug recovery transitional program.
"We try to give them enough hope and enough strength to make a change in their life," King said. "We offer them Jesus Christ who cares."
Newman started with the program as a bookkeeper and became a chaplain about six years ago. Her husband, Bill, is a board member and the group's attorney.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.