Prison ministry celebrates 25 years

Alamance Orange Prison Ministry stumbled upon proof of its quarter-century anniversary by accident.

A new board member rifling through past papers, doing research for the organization, happened upon a date that pegged Sunday, July 29, as its 25th birthday. Though the ministry opted out of a large celebration for the time being—instead quietly sending thank you letters to friends and supporters—Chaplain Dave Nickel said he still wanted to mark the date if only to commemorate all those who have made this anniversary possible.

“I’m so thankful for so many people for so many things that have happened for the past 25 years and beyond for this to have happened,” he said. “… It’s amazing when you think about the recessions that have happened in the last 25 years, to realize this has just kept on going. The chaplain has been paid to keep showing up for 25 years; that’s amazing.”

In the beginning

The ministry grew out of an effort by Mt. Zion Baptist Church to fund chaplains at Alamance and Orange correctional centers, both of which were within the congregation’s geographical area. After a few years, the group decided to establish the Alamance Orange Prison Ministry in an effort to establish a broader support base. When the Alamance center closed around 2000, the ministry focused its attention solely on Orange Correctional Center, a minimum security prison for men.

“We felt like there needed to be some grace in the midst of judgement, theologically speaking, of course,” said former chaplain Ken Barker, who started with the ministry before it officially became AOPM and retired in October 2011. “The chaplain is there to help assist the men in this setting of judgement.”

The ministry has dedicated the efforts of its chaplain and supporters to nurturing the relationship among the inmates and the greater community, alerting the public to what the men need and educating the inmates on opportunities to turn their lives down a more positive, productive path.

“Because of the feeling that a lot of people have about folks that have violated society’s laws, there’s a lot of strong feelings,” Barker said. “We felt like we needed to temper that and to help provide the guys a second chance, get them, reclaim them for society, trying to be true to the gospel, trying to give them a second chance and help them in that regard.”

‘Come and have some peace’

A big part of the chaplain’s role lies in that ministry between those inside the correctional center and those without. But another aspect is to be there as a support for the inmates, to counsel the men through a sickness or death in the family or lead religious programs such as services—of a wide range of denominations, not just Christian—community gatherings and Bible studies.

The ministry also worked to raise funds to build a chapel of sorts, called the Peace Center. The $380,000-project was paid for entirely on community donations and acts as a sanctuary for the inmates.

“Most people would call it a chapel, but we want it to be interfaith, so we call it the Peace Center,” Nickel said. “When they finished it, they donated it to the state. … It’s a place where guys can come and have some peace. We have some books and CDs and tapes and videos for the guys to come and just get a little break.”

Community support

Without the ministry—and without the community that supports it—that sanctuary wouldn’t exist. And that, Nickel said, is why paying tribute to the quarter-century anniversary remains crucial even in the absence of a formal celebration.

“I think it’s always important to remember the history of where we’ve come from and use that to plan where we’re going,” he said. “… Remembering the 25 years of incorporation helps us remember where we came from so that we plan for the future and what the vision of this ministry is for the future.”

But the 25th birthday emphasizes the commitment of local residents more than the accomplishments of the ministry itself.

“It says a lot about the community that they are willing to invest their time and money to support this position in order to help the men,” Barker said. “… It’s like I said at my retirement party: ‘I’m retiring, but the Alamance Orange Prison Ministry is not retiring.’ It needs to continue in the interest and support of the community in order to help these guys. So I hope that they will continue to be supportive of this.”

 Erin Wiltgen

Alamance Orange Prison Ministry—which serves the inmates at Orange Correctional Center, 2110 Clarence Walters Road—is a community-funded nonprofit. The organization pays a chaplain to serve the men in the facility and act as a bridge between the center and the outside world. For more information, call Chaplain Dave Nickel at (919) 732-9301.