The Holy Spirit is moving in northwest Arkansas. Seventeen women at the Northwest Arkansas Community Correction Center in Washington County were baptized Sunday, June 11.
The women are participants of a Bible study at the facility led by ladies from First Baptist Church in Fayetteville. The Bible study, which is part of the church’s overall prison ministry, is held weekly and utilizes resources by the late Tommy Higle, an Oklahoma pastor who wrote and published Bible studies for discipleship.
Anita Lawson, group leader of the Sunday night Bible study, said the ministry affects women incarcerated for non-violent crimes that frequently have some sort of connection to supporting various addictions.
“Our volunteering in the prison is foremost to help the individual women there have a spiritual component of their incarceration experience. We want to teach them about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit,” Lawson said. “The women are affected by the Holy Spirit through our attempts to set the stage for the Holy Spirit to work. We use the Bible to guide us on loving and not judging and helping these women with the knowledge and feelings they have on losing custody of their children, isolation issues, abandonment issues, depression, anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness, and other mental and emotional effects of incarceration as well as dealing with the guilt most of these women experience.”
Lawson said they attempt to show the women through Bible study they have a future that can be much different than what they may have experienced thus far in their lives. The prison has a capacity for about 114 to 120 residents. Lawson said their Bible study attendance the past several weeks has been in the range of 30 to 40 attendees.
A big component of the outreach is the writing of personal encouragement cards to the women within the facility.
“I knew from my own personal experiences and formal education training that the personal relationship between teacher and student is the single most important thing of what we can control in a student’s life to have the greatest positive effect on learning,” Lawson said.
Many of the women that volunteer in the ministry are teachers by profession and have years of professional development and experience in teaching and reaching students of all ages. Additionally, Lawson said God has brought in businesspeople, retired missionaries, former prison administration individuals and others to assist in the outreach.
“The Lord had prepared each of us through mission trips, teaching in public schools and universities, Sunday school classes, vacation Bible school classes and many other formal education experiences like graduate degrees from a variety of universities to all come together with God’s guidance to make a powerful impact on these women,” Lawson said. “We are a heterogeneous group by God’s design.”
Additionally, the Bible study attendees are encouraged to write prayer requests on an index card every Sunday. The requests are shared with prayer partners at church and among the ministry volunteers.
“Our goal is to ensure each prayer request is the basis of our prayers for the women in prison. We use the encouragement card to connect with that individual with attention to her concerns such that a relationship begins to form,” Lawson said.
Caroline Tanneberger, who has been involved with the ministry since its start more than a decade ago, said she believes everybody involved wants to be encouragers for these ladies and to share the good news of Christ with them.
“The Bible points us to the ‘least of these’ because of His love for each of them and those in prison are included in that. I think it is also important to let others know what these ladies go through, or have gone through, because they need to be seen through God’s eyes,” Tanneberger said.
Fayetteville First Baptist Church Pastor Douglas Falknor said this year – for the first time since they began baptizing women from Northwest Arkansas Community Corrections Center in 2012 – family members were allowed to attend.
“These families who have endured so much heartache through the years rejoiced to see their moms and sisters and daughters put their trust in Jesus and publicly confess Him as Savior and Lord through baptism,” he said.
According to Lawson, another achievement they have recently had was Sunday, June 18. For the first time, they held an event where they divided up the group into their volunteer and resident subgroups so they could meet, talk and connect on a more personable level during the hour allowed for Bible study. She said the residents loved it.
“Any idea we may get to try to improve things is straight from the Lord. He is our guide, and He is the author of all good that is happening in this ministry,” Lawson said. “It is God’s work, and we are all thankful we get to be blessed by him for just being able to do the work He has before us for our hands to do.”
The Holy Spirit can also be seen working at the Central Arkansas Community Corrections Center in Little Rock.
On June 23, 17 residents of the facility, which houses 150, confirmed their faith through baptism.
Chaplain Patrick Mead, who is also pastor at Shepherd Hill Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, said most of the men at the center are there because they are addicted to meth, opioids or alcohol. They have not been to what Mead calls “big prison.”
“This is their first taste of incarceration. Most of them are here six months to a year. What we are trying to do is help them overcome their addiction,” he said. “The state of Arkansas is giving them a chance to get their life together before they become institutionalized.”
A portion of that is the opportunity to take faith-based classes during the Celebrate Recovery 12-step program. The courses are taught by volunteers, including folks from Saint Mark Baptist Church in Little Rock and Exodus Life, a non-profit organization with a faith-based approach to addressing addiction, co-occurring diagnosis, and incarceration-related crises faced by families.
“We have a lot of faith-based classes and that is where we are seeing a lot of guys are finding their higher power to be Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” Mead said.
June was not the only month for baptisms. In May, 13 men were baptized. Twenty men were baptized in April and 19 in March.
“Since March the Lord has just been doing some things,” Mead said, noting those numbers include a few men rededicating their lives to Christ. Most of them, however, were finding the Lord for the first time.
Mead said the men do not have to go to the faith-based classes, but they do. And they are finding Christ.
“It’s wonderful,” he said.
Additionally, pointing out God’s work in other areas, Mead said at his church in Pine Bluff, where they average about 50-60 people each Sunday, they have had six baptisms since the start of the year.