Chaplain shepherds flock behind bars

Chaplain Lance Marshall talks with inmates at the Merced County Main Jail during a bible study on Wednesday, November 10, 2010.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY LISA JAMES Chaplain Lance Marshall talks with inmates at the Merced County Main Jail during a bible study on Wednesday, November 10, 2010. Merced Sun-Star

Chaplain Lance Marshall's nickname is "Shepherd 1" because one day a few years ago, when he walked out into the yard at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility, an inmate yelled, "Feed my sheep!"

The name stuck.

Now, when inmates call him that nickname around the jail he turns around.

Marshall is a shepherd in disguise in his blue jeans, carrying a green camouflage-covered Bible with the words "Truth Hunters" emblazoned on the front.

He brings reassurance and a sense of calm to inmates at Sandy Mush correctional facility and the Merced County Jail. Inmates have given him crosses made out of trash. He does what people on the outside can't do: reach out to former gang members and inmates who have broken the law. He provides for them -- both physically and spiritually.

The chaplain has received more than 10,000 requests for services in 2009 alone. There are more than 600 inmates in the main jail and Sandy Mush, according to deputy Tom MacKenzie.

Marshall has been chaplain of the Merced County Jail Ministry for almost three years. His road to becoming a chaplain wasn't a direct one.

The Hawaii native, who has lived in four other states, moved away from the islands after he finished high school. His dream was to become a missionary overseas, but he and his wife couldn't raise enough support to travel far from home.

"When I first got interested in the ministry, it was back in 1990 and my first idea was to be a missionary overseas," he explained. "That's what I trained to do in Bible college and what my wife and I hoped to do after Bible college."

He finished Bible college in Nebraska in 1996, then traveled to Oregon in 1998 where he worked as a church pastor. Ten years ago, he moved to California. In 2007, he got his first job as chaplain at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center in San Jose. Before that, he was a pastor in Madera for two-and-a-half years.

Even though he wanted to help people overseas, he realized he could help people from all distant lands -- in jail.

"I've got guys from all around the world speaking all languages, religions, backgrounds. God seems to have brought the world to me in Merced," he said. "It's so much more culturally, linguistically, religiously diverse here in the jail as opposed to the church."

The two facilities where he ministers are vastly different.

At Sandy Mush, he can walk around and everybody can see him. Inmates can come up to him and speak to him -- or submit requests to speak to him. He goes into as many as 18 dorms a week to meet groups of inmates. "It varies, last week we had 10," he said.

But at the jail, he isn't allowed into the inmates' cells. He said he visits at least six cells a week and deals with the inmates outside the bars.

The chaplain also leads Bible study sessions. From July through September, he led 197 sessions with a total of 1,132 men. On Wednesday afternoon, he led a study session among inmate workers with tattoos on their arms and necks who sat around a table with their Bibles in hand. They do the laundry and clean the jail.

"So where were we?" asked the 50-year-old chaplain as he sat at the table.

"We were at John 16," replied an inmate.

Everyone flipped open their Bibles to find the verse.

"As soon as we all get to the verse, we'll pray," Marshall said.

After the prayer, Marshall said, "Every time we meet, we have to have a pop quiz," and then asked the group who John was.

"He was John the disciple," answered an inmate.

Another answered, "He was Jesus' best friend."

The chaplain mentioned that the verse is John 3:16, and one inmate recited it from memory.

During the session, another inmate mouthed along with the verses and nodded his head as the chaplain read from the Bible.

Marshall said there have been five conversions that have been reported to him since he's worked at the jails. He said he's seen 40 men who have converted because of their fellow inmates' contact with him. But he stressed that he doesn't try to push people to make the commitment.

"That's something I'm very careful about so I don't push people to make decisions. I tell them here is a decision you can make, and then I tell them it's between you and God. I have no power," he explained.

He mentioned how one man wouldn't become a Christian in the jail because he felt it was a "jailhouse conversion" and that "it's not honest."

"I give them a lesson about being saved. I don't force them. It's what God thinks of you, not what Chaplain Lance thinks of you," he said.

Marshall also ramped up the recovery program or the In Custody Drug Treatment Program, which helps inmates recovering from drug addiction. "I meet with the guys and sit with them for one hour for Bible study and it applies to recovery," he said.

He also hands out Christian and non-Christian reading material, such as National Geographic magazine and Reader's Digest to the inmates twice a week. Once a month, he gives out prayer books.

And he provides for everyone -- regardless of denomination. He said there are chaplains at the state level he can contact when he needs an answer to a tough question. "We work together. The chaplain provides for everybody. That's how chaplains work," he said. "There are few Muslims in the jail, and a few Jews and some Buddhists. There is one Sikh guy."

Sitting among inmates all day long and even going into their dorms could seem frightening, but it's not for Marshall. The only time he was afraid was when he was working in Merced for less than a year and was in a section of the Merced County Jail. He was standing on the opposite tier, or hallway, of the block and an inmate he knew yelled from across the tier, "Chaplain Lance, get down here!" because he wanted to talk to him. "He jumped out, and for a second I was scared," he recalled. "There were no bars between us."

The hardest thing he has to deal with is when a loved one dies. "An inmate lost his wife a mile away from where he was in the Mush," he said. "When little kids die, I help them. An inmate's brother died and I went to his brother's funeral. Deaths are really hard."

Deputy MacKenzie said the service Marshall provides is invaluable. "Most people don't think of that," he said. "He offers that sense to them, helps ground them and bring them back to help society."

The Merced County Jail Ministry has been around since 1989, and Chaplain Bill King was its first chaplain. His wife, Carole King, who has been the chaplain for the women for the past four years, said Marshall brings a desire to serve anybody. "And that you are not afraid and you're willing to do whatever it takes, whatever the officers want and to meet the inmates where they are on a spiritual level," she said. "Some of them are hurting really, really bad."

Working with inmates, Marshall has also learned a lot about his own life, such as being strong under duress.

"Most of these guys have been in tough situations, and they've been dealing with them with their faith. Their faith helps them through the tough situations," he said.

And he helps them keep that faith.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsun-star.com.