Last Sunday a few dozen people from the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church gathered at the Sangamon County Jail on Ninth Street. They were waiting for Enos Brents to lead them to the prison gym, where they were going to baptize 20 male inmates.
Normally, visitors must remove their earrings, said Brents, the assistant superintendent for the Sangamon County Sheriff's Department. But in this case he was going to make an exception--the women in the choir could keep their earrings on.
None of the women were wearing earrings. I assumed that meant they already knew the routine, that the folks from Pleasant Grove had done this before, that they might even know some of the inmates. But when I asked them about that, some took offense, as if I had accused them of associating with known felons, or questioned their reasons for being there.
"If you're here solely because you know someone in the there, you're going for the wrong reason," choir member Vivian Williams said. It turned out that they don't put on earrings when wearing their robes, no matter where they're singing the gospel.
Brents, a serious-looking man of medium height and stocky build, asked everyone to leave their cell phones behind. He referred to recent fighting at the jail and gave instructions to get out of harm's way in case there was trouble tonight. He had one more rule, which he repeated at least two more times during the evening: "Whatever you take in, you must bring out."
The baptisms, along with a similar service held last week by another minister, were the first ever held at the prison, Brents said. Ministers from Pleasant Grove have been holding services for the inmates for nearly two years, as well as meeting with some of them one-on-one. Pleasant Grove's prison ministry is a direct result of Brents's efforts to augment the chaplaincy program at the jail, allowing more churches and ministers in to see the inmates. Brents said 15 women are also scheduled to be baptized soon.
Once the gym and the men were ready, Brents called out in a loud voice, "Override the doors! Both doors! Let them in!" We all followed and went up in an elevator. Inside the gym, all 20 men dressed in striped prison outfits were sitting on the floor against a wall and behind a solid white line that ran around the perimeter. Several guards were also present, mostly relaxed and leaning against the gym walls. The place was lit by the kind of florescent lights that buzz. A large, gray, plastic tub was wheeled onto the middle of the floor over a bunch of towels and blankets. Other inmates were pouring buckets of water into the tub, which looked like it could hold a few hundred gallons. A curtain that divides the gym in half was drawn about a quarter-way across. Once baptized, the inmates would go behind the curtain, strip naked, and change into dry clothes, which they had to do in full view of at least one woman guard and many of the church members, who backed away to where they couldn't see the men changing.
Baptism is a weighted word in Christian churches. Some denominations proclaim it's a requirement for salvation. Some teach that baptism is only legitimate when done in their church. Others insist that baptism is merely a public ceremony that symbolizes a believer has been cleansed of his sins and owes his life to Christ, already having made a commitment of faith. Brents, himself a deacon at Pleasant Grove, helped lead the service and espoused the latter view. What the men were about to do is important, he said to them, but there's nothing special about the water. Being baptized in front of other Christians meant the men were committing themselves to a life ordered and ruled by Jesus.
The service was short, no more than an hour. A sermon and an "Invitation to Discipleship" were left out due to time constraints. Brents told the men to "listen up," explicitly instructing them on how to line up for their baptism, what to do after they got out of the tub, and what to do after changing. After the baptism, the inmates would be offered communion--grape juice and a small piece of bread.
Brents spoke for a few minutes, then the choir began singing in a hesitant and timid manner. A minute into a song, though, it was as if a switch had been turned on. Voices, rich and in harmony, rose in volume and filled the gym. Many of the inmates started to clap and move to the tempo as the singers belted out "Whom shall I fear?"
The choir finished its song. One of about a dozen Pleasant Grove ministers--all men wearing dark suits, white shirts, and mostly red ties--read from the New Testament book of Acts: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the Holy Spirit." Brents told the men that, despite being in prison--or perhaps because of it--they've made the best decision of their lives. "If you really mean this, it's a strong banner on your soul. But if this is just a fly-by night, there is no significance."
The baptisms went quickly, as the men, one by one, approached and then entered the tub. The Pleasant Grove ministers lowered them under water and baptized them "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Steve Hoff, who heads the Chatham Bible School of Jesus Christ, was there with his 21-year-old son, Steve Jr. Hoff had baptized 37 men the week before, and he showed up today to lend a hand. The Pleasant Grove people clapped after each man rose from the water.
The first man in the tub was David Doss. After he changed into dry clothes, he walked to the other side of the gym, a few feet from me. He saw me jotting down notes and asked if I was a reporter.
"I was born in a Biblical family," Doss told me. "I always have been meaning to be baptized. I've only been here a week."
He looked over to Brents, uncertain whether he needed permission to speak. Brents gave an encouraging nod.
Doss said he grew up in Springfield, attending Second Timothy Baptist Church, where he intends to go back "the Sunday" he gets out. Doss turns 30 on February 15. He said he was arrested because of a "driving-related incident." Later Brents told me Doss was a fugitive who left town and was picked up when he returned. Brents didn't know on what charges. Doss's bail, though, is only $250, Brents said, meaning he probably did something relatively minor. Regardless, Brent said that Doss has already been sentenced and is "waiting for transport to wherever."
"Hopefully, this is a new beginning," Doss said, adding that he's been in different kinds of trouble since he was 16. He has a fiancee and two children, ages 13 and 8. He also has two step-children, ages 14 and 15. He's a welder by trade, and he plans on picking it up again once he's wearing his own clothes.
Because this is the first time the county has allowed baptisms in jail, Doss said he believes he found himself there at this particular time for a reason, that God was pushing him to change. He wanted me to tell his mother about what he had done. "Finally, I'm not the bad guy anymore," he said.
A guard saw Doss talking with me and ordered him to walk back to where the rest of the baptized men were sitting. Doss tried to tell the guard that Brents had said it was OK, but the guard was in no mood to listen. He again ordered Doss to head back to where the other men were.
By then, nearly all the men had been baptized. The choir was belting out "Oh happy day!"
Communion took only a few minutes. Brents said a few more words--about the tub that someone donated to the jail, about the importance of Pleasant Grove's work, and how what they were doing served the residents of Sangamon County because 85 percent of the men in the jail return to the local community. Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, he said, has ministered to 2,927 incarcerated men since it started its prison ministry about a year and a half ago. I later asked Brents whether the church also had programs for the men once they get out of prison. Not yet, he said, but they plan to do that. For now, he said, the prisoners are encouraged to start attending church. "We don't tell them to go to specifically to Pleasant Grove, although they'd absolutely be welcomed there."
The guards herded the men in single file out of the gym and back to their cells. Brents warned us once more: "Take back out everything you brought in."
Pleasant Grove's routine is to send a few of its ministers to the jail every Sunday night between 5 and 9 p.m. Any church or religious group that wants to hold services for inmates can do so; Brents usually assigns them to a prison block. Pleasant Grove is assigned to four blocks---D, E, F, G. The men in those blocks are there for any number of charges, including drug dealing, armed robbery, and murder. Brents said that none of the men at the baptism were in for murder. When Brents started the chaplain program a couple of years ago, he soon realized that much more than a chaplain was needed. Currently, there are several different Christian and Muslim groups holding services and meeting with inmates at the jail.
Brents became a Sheriff's deputy in Sangamon County in 1970, after coming back from Vietnam where he served in the Army. In the mid-'70s he joined the Navy to help start a military police unit. He stayed there for about 20 years, coming back in the mid-'90s to the Sangamon County Sheriff's Department, where he's stayed ever since. His office is decorated with photos and memorabilia from his military days, and stacks of the Koran and the Bible in English and Spanish. "More people are asking for Bibles," he says. "I have gone through cases and cases. They take them with them when they leave."
Brents says he looks at the inmates as "beings in need of spiritual teaching." However, it's not surprising that he's also big on individual responsibility. "People are what they are. They are human. While everyone is responsible for their actions, 'there but for the grace of God go I,' " he said. "Don't get me wrong. We have some bad people here. But they are not for me to judge. We're all sinners."