For Mike Halverson, going to “the hole” to visit prisoners in lockdown is an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. “There’s a lot of pain in there,” he says. On most Fridays, it’s one of the first places he visits after arriving at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex (BCCC).
“There’s a lot of them who don’t have the foggiest idea who Jesus is,” Halverson said. “But, to help them to realize that He loves them and cares for them and they have a purpose in this life, that’s awesome.”
Mike and his wife, Diana, are both building contractors. Despite their busy schedule, for more than 20 years they have found time to be volunteer chaplains at BCCC, a state prison in Pikeville, Tennessee United States.
Many of the approximately 3,000 inmates know Mike and Diana by name, and the couple has also earned the respect of the prison officials. This has provided many opportunities for them to minister and share God’s love. Every week, they are at the prison most days of the week, sometimes several times a day, meeting with inmates, conducting religious services for them, and praying with them. But it hasn’t always been like this.
When they first started volunteering at the prison, Mike and Diana met a lot of resistance to having an Adventist presence at the facilities. In 2013 there was a change in state leadership. The new state chaplain had previous positive experiences with Adventists and knew he could trust them. Since then, the Halversons have earned the trust and respect of the prison officials and have become the primary volunteer chaplains at BCCC.
This has opened up additional opportunities for other members to be involved in the prison. The Halversons work with eight other Adventist church members from several area churches who regularly minister and provide Bible studies at BCCC. Every Friday evening, these volunteers hold four simultaneous Bible studies, some of them with up to 40 participants.
While members of other denominations also visit the prison, Jorge Ulloa from the Dunlap Hispanic church is the only volunteer conducting a Bible study in Spanish. Other groups have tried to provide programming in Spanish but have been unable to, Diana said. “We are just really blessed with being able to have these services.”
The Halversons are two of the nearly 100 volunteers across the Georgia-Cumberland Conference of the Adventist Church involved with prison ministries. “These volunteers have a great opportunity,” E. W. Dempsey, Georgia-Cumberland adult ministries director says.
“These are opportunities for us to reach people whose world has stopped,” Dempsey, who oversees health and prison ministries programs, says. Referring to Matthew 25:36, 43, Dempsey emphasizes: “Christ asked us to do this when He said to the righteous, ‘I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me,’ but then said to the cursed, ‘I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ ”
Diana agrees. “One of the most exciting parts for me,” she says, “is when the inmates first hear the Sabbath truth and see it in the Bible. You see them struggle with it at first, and then, all of a sudden, they say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that; why didn’t I know that? I’ve been a Christian all my life.’”
As a result of the Halversons’ ministry, several inmates have asked for baptism and received one-on-one studies from either Mike or Diana. “These inmates are then baptized as members of one of the local churches or a church near where they will be released at the end of their sentence. In addition to the at least 20 baptisms, there are another 40 people that currently identify as Adventists,” Diana says.
During their ministry at BCCC, the Halversons have worked with individuals and entire units that nobody else wanted, such as the inmates in the mental health unit. “In this unit, the people are so medicated,” Diana explained, “that they can’t walk and are difficult to be around.” Now, more than half of them come to their services and are cordial to Mike and Diana.
“I don’t think there’s any limit to what God can do, if you’re willing,” Mike says.