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Hear It From the Heart

Every week or so, we publish a story about the life of our ministry. All names are fictionalized to protect the identity of those inside. Thanks for reading!

Guitars Behind Bars

“Before we begin, I would like to make it abundantly clear that I cannot sing. Prepare your ears accordingly.”

You can’t say that I didn’t warn ‘em.

 

It was a Thursday morning. I was locked in the dining hall at Metro Regional Youth Detention Center. I do not like Metro. The plexiglass windows are covered in graffiti, the doors hammer shut with a resounding boom, nothing ever rarely occurs on time or in an orderly fashion. It is chaotic, dimly lit, sterile, and a horrible place to house at-risk youth who have already made poor decisions and are now thrust in an environment where they’re easily persuaded by other at-risk youth to make more bad decisions.

 

I visit Metro every Thursday morning to lead a guitar class for 4 to 6 incarcerated boys aged 13-17. We had a professional musician leading the class but he moved to Birmingham, so I dusted off an old guitar and decided to do it myself. I watch YouTube videos of simple guitar riffs and teach a new song each week – Another One Bites the Dust, Smoke on the Water, Ode to Joy, Sunshine of Your Love - simple stuff really.

 

A few weeks ago, I watched Scorsese’s The Last Waltz documenting The Band’s final concert. One song has been stuck in my head since then, Mannish Boy by Muddy Waters. I decided to learn it on guitar; turns out, it’s quite simple, which as I mentioned earlier, is perfect for our class.

 

Last Thursday, the boys shuffled into the cafeteria for class. One was turning 17 the next day and would be transferred to an adult prison to serve out the remainder of his time. He was on edge; he’s been with me since the first guitar class. Truth be told, he was a horrible guitar player for the longest time. He showed up to class high, easily lost his place, and acted like he didn’t care. A couple weeks ago, something changed. He played an old riff from memory, the first time he had ever shown interest in class or what we were doing. I looked him in the eyes and smiled. I told him how proud I was of him. I told him he did such a good job, and he had played every note perfectly. And the strangest thing happened – he smiled back at me. His face lit up. He actually smiled at me. I’d never seen him smile before. All I’d ever seen was a face hidden behind dreads, a face with a forlorn look and bloodshot eyes. I then realized, sometimes, all these kids need is someone to tell them that they did a good job. Here’s the beautiful thing - it doesn’t cost me a dime to tell that kid that I am proud of him, that he accomplished something, that he has done a good job. It took nothing and yet it meant all the world to him.

 

But back to our class. As the boys sat down, I noticed that BJ had decided to come to class today. BJ is by far the worst guitar student we have ever had. He acts like he can’t play even though I know he can. He acts like he doesn’t care, acts like they force him to come each week, acts like he can’t learn. Sometimes he’ll pick up the guitar and intentionally hold it upside down and ask me mockingly, “Am I holding it right?” I know he’s acting out for attention, but God has granted me patience to love him regardless.

 

I told the kids we would be learning a new song today, Mannish Boy by Muddy Waters. BJ’s face lit up, “Wait, Muddy Waters? I’ve seen a movie about him.” I was perplexed; I’d never heard of such a movie. In a flash, he told me all about Muddy Waters’ life; he had indeed seen a movie. I encouraged him, “Yes, yes, you’re 100% right, now we’re going to learn one of his songs.” BJ realized he’d revealed his secret to the class – he was smart, he knew things. In his excitement he had stood up, he quickly slouched down into the chair bolted to the ground, eyes averted downwards.

 

We began to learn. One of my old baseball teammates Hayden Dwyer donated his electric guitar and amp to our program. When those boys touch that electric Fender guitar, magic happens. The room vibrates with an electricity, the energy palpable, the noise often deafening. They love the distortions it makes, the sounds of metal strings wailing out songs. We passed the guitar around, each boy practicing the simple riff over and over again. In that moment, I felt like that guitar has been blessed by God himself. The second they place that strap over their heads, those boys smile.

 

BJ tried playing. He acted like he didn’t know what a fret was even though we’ve gone over it a hundred or so times. He played a few times, not sounding particularly good or bad. He passed the guitar along to the next student. I offered encouragement, “Good job, BJ. I’m proud of you.” He didn’t smile.

 

I showed them the main beat to the song. BJ smiled now, “That’s smooth, I like that.” I told them it was time to learn how to sing while playing the guitar. I issued a warning – “I can’t sing. Don’t laugh.” I played and sang the Muddy Waters tune.

 

After a while, I continued with the beat but stopped singing; I’d forgotten the lyrics. BJ nodded along, his turn to affirm me. “That was nice.” For context, when a young Black kid like BJ says “nice,” this is the ultimate compliment. I, for once in my life, was nice. I felt on top of the world.

 

The other students piped in – “BJ, rap over it.” I didn’t know BJ could rap; he’d never mentioned it. He looked down sheepishly, “Naw, forget about it.” I nudged him, “I didn’t know you rapped, come on bro, let’s hear it.” He looked at the guard in the corner, then at his fellow students. He leaned back, almost to the ground, “Naw, naw, I can’t guys.” They continued to cajole him. I started to play the beat, this time, down an octave, producing a sound more suitable to rap. He wouldn’t go for it. I reached over to the amp and turned up the bass. I think I saw his foot begin to tap along, but I didn’t look at him too intensely, not wanting him to shy away.

 

The boy who would turn 17 tomorrow and be sent to adult prison pleaded with BJ, “Come on man, we gotta hear it.” I picked up the tempo and sure enough, BJ began to “spit”.

 

The speed and intensity of his words were beyond my listening comprehension. But he rapped, and rapped, and rapped. The other boys heard and interpreted every word. At regular intervals they cheered, smiling ear to ear, basking in the moment. Finally, BJ stopped, “Aight, that’s all I got.”

 

I quit playing. I extended my hand in a fist bump and exclaimed, “BJ, you were nice with it!”

 

We finished our class with a discussion about decisions. The male brain doesn’t stop fully forming until you turn 25, and some research postulates it might take until 35 for some men. I told the boys, “Look, your brains aren’t fully formed. Think of that fact when making decisions.” A group of boys had started a riot two weeks prior - classes had been subsequently cancelled. “Don’t make this experience worse than it already is. Don’t cut yourself off from programs.” They nodded along. I prayed the message would stick.

 

At the end of class, I asked the boys, “What song did we learn today?”

 

And BJ – the once disinterested student - answered proudly.

 

Nice, I thought. So nice.

 

Spencer

"Like an Eastern Redbud, I have a heart."

“Like an eastern redbud I have a heart.”

 

Each week during our horticulture class, I introduce the students to a new plant. They then have to memorize how to visually identify the plant, as well as how to spell its Latin, common, and family names. They’ve learned to spell words like Chaenomeles speciosa and Hamamelidaceae. I’m replicating an exact assignment I had in my own undergraduate studies and teaching the same plants I learned and poured over for four years. The only difference is that instead of walking around a botanical garden and visually identifying these plants like I did, my students have to see photos of them on a PowerPoint.

 

Because they can’t see the plants in person, they’ve come up with ingenious mnemonic ways to remember each plant. Take for example, the Eastern Redbud, or as it’s known in Latin, Cercis canadensis. The Eastern Redbud has heart shaped leaves, an easily identifiable feature that stands out amongst other plants. Hearts = red = Eastern Redbud. Another example, Fothergilla major, or Witch-Alder. The flower blooms of the Witch-Alder look like a cat’s tail, witches are always depicted with cats, cat tails = witches = Witch-Alder.

 

It's silly, fun, and helps the students better know the world around them. Plus, we’re teaching something new and foreign to a group of students who have historically been uncomfortable in classroom settings and never felt like they have belonged. I remind them that if they can learn Latin, there’s nothing else that they can’t learn.

 

As the semester wound down, I was running out of ideas for assignments. I resorted to something simple -- write a page on a plant that has changed your life. I truthfully did not know what to expect. A week later, I read through their papers. Not surprisingly, some students wrote of the cocoa and marijuana plants and their adverse effects. Other students wrote of plants their mothers had used in homemade recipes that they missed. One student, an aspiring rapper, wrote at the top of his paper “The Eastern Redbud.”

 

“The Eastern Redbud?” I thought. That’s strange. I kept reading.

 

In his paper he wrote: Like an eastern redbud I have a heart.

 

Then sang my soul. God is using plants to show these 50+ men His goodness. This kid had never seen an Eastern Redbud before my PowerPoint. But that plant with the heart-shaped leaves taught him something about himself.

 

How great God is.

 

Have a blessed day.

 

Spencer

Why We Smile In Prison

There’s a peace lily on my porch. It’s a sad little creature, confined to a wicker basket that’s starting to rot.

 

I have a small collection of houseplants, all of which are in varying states of health and wellness. Yes, I was a horticulture major in college and hold a Master of Science from UGA, but never took the “Indoor Plants” class. I don’t know anything about our indoor plant friends, which is quite ironic because when people hear about my educational and career background, they immediately ask me about their houseplants. “Sorry,” I reply, “I missed that class.”

 

Let me let you in on a secret as to why this sad little peace lily is perhaps my most precious houseplant. She can go a week or so without water, allowing me to forsake her while I’m out on the road or just too busy to get around to filling up my watering pail for her. Every so often I forget to water her and like clockwork, I’ll walk out on my porch and see her, all sad and wrinkled, leaves drooping towards the cold, hard tile. I’ll admonish myself for the neglect I’ve shown her, reach under my cabinet for my trusty pail, and pour an entire gallon into her basket. In a few short hours, her leaves will be shining towards the sun once more, proud and radiant, glowing brightly in a sheen of dark green. Last year she was kind enough to even bloom for me, sending beautiful white stalks heavenward, proclaiming her desires to reproduce and bring joy elsewhere.

 

This may seem like a pivot, but stick with me. On Tuesday, June 4, I woke at 5 AM and turned my oven to 375 degrees. For the next four hours I baked 24 pounds of lasagna, 24 pounds of chicken alfredo, and 8 pounds of sauteed mushrooms. My mentor (and HeartBound board member) Amy Durham then met me at my apartment, where we loaded up pounds and pounds of pasta and commenced the hour-plus drive to Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, GA. That Tuesday was our graduation luncheon for the latest horticulture class at Burruss and we had cause to celebrate – over 50 men and boys had graduated, earning 4 college credits from Central Georgia Technical College along the way.

 

I’ve never been one for pageantry – on top of the Indoor Plants class I also missed the graduation ceremony for my master’s program. I suppose I had this idea that I simply did what I was supposed to do and saw no reason to celebrate accomplishing something expected of me. Consequently, during previous graduation ceremonies inside prisons, I didn’t put forth too much effort. We’d eat, I’d say a few remarks about how proud I was of the students, then we’d be on our way, ready to begin the next class.

 

However, the past couple weeks, I’ve noticed a change both internally and externally. One of the programs I lead is guitar at Metro Regional Youth Detention Center. Most of my students have never held a guitar before, let alone imagined that they could play. Teaching guitar isn’t exactly rocket science, but it sure isn’t easy either. The students become frustrated, their hands cramp, and the sounds they produce aren’t always “joyful.” I’ve had to learn to adapt my teaching style to keep them interested. I’ve had to learn a new trick: smile.

 

I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s taken me so long to learn this trick. But when a student plays something well, or makes progress, I look at them and smile. Sincerely. I tell them that I’m proud of them. Even if it sounds horrible and they missed three notes, I tell them that they’re making progress and that I believe in them. And I do truly believe in them. The darndest thing happens in return: they smile too. These unbelievably broken and tough and hardened young boys, serving time for murder, armed robbery, and vehicular theft, facing prison sentences of 20-plus years while living in the bleakest and most desolate of environments, smile. And they are real smiles, even if they only last for a fleeting second.

 

This newfound knowledge has transferred to other aspects of my life and work as well. I’ve learned that even the most disruptive unruly student at Burruss can be melted by a smile and the words, “I’m proud of you, keep going.” It’s totally changed our classroom; the troublemakers are now sitting in the front row, and the ones I had given up as lost causes are now engaged and passing with flying colors. All because God has granted me the grace to say, “I’m proud of you, Mr. Grant.”

 

After our latest horticulture class ended, I planned an actual graduation ceremony. We played bingo to start, but the kind of bingo where you have to go around and find people that match the descriptions in each square, such as “find someone who things LeBron is the GOAT” or “find someone who can play an instrument”. I thought it was a silly game, but the guys absolutely loved it. I realized afterwards that these men in prison don’t get to have a lot of fun; a silly childish game may be the only reason they smile that day. Following bingo, we served up those pounds and pounds of pasta, and like feeding the five thousand, the food just kept going and going, so much so that when we went to serve thirds, some of the younger boys looked at us with full tummies and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I then went up to the podium with HeartBound chaplain, Pastor John Richardson, who delivered remarks for his students who had graduated from his financial literacy course. It was then my turn to speak. I’d prepared remarks this time. I’ll share with you the ending:

 

“You men have found a way to survive, to repel the attacks that you face, to communicate in unique and unprecedented ways, to find commonality to combat the boredom, the loneliness, the sorrow, and the holidays spent alone. You have banded together, Black, White, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, old and young, to not just survive, but thrive. You’ve confronted your past through written papers, composed beautiful poems, and discussed deep, philosophical, meaningful books. You’ve defied all odds, overturned expectations and perceptions, and done something great. Again, gentlemen, I am proud of you. Over time, this class has undergone a radical transformation; I have become the student, and you have become the teachers. Gentlemen, you are college professors in my eyes, the greatest teachers I have ever had, the greatest teachers I will ever have.

 

I’d like to leave you fine gentlemen with a Psalm: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning”. My hope, my ardent prayer, is that in this moment, in this visitation room, you find joy in this great accomplishment. I am so honored to be your student.”

 

I then called each graduate up to the podium to retrieve their certificate of completion, addressing them as “Mr. Haden Whitefield” or “Mr. Leron Askinton.” As each graduate stood, I saw God move in them in a very real and powerful way.

 

As I began calling names, the graduates tucked in their prison shirts and sat up a little taller. When their name arrived, they stood up, looking tough and mighty, bearing stoic looks on their faces. They walked unflinchingly towards the podium, taking care to puff up their shoulders, appearing quite statuesque in their resoluteness. They then would mechanically reach one hand forward for their certificate and the other for a handshake. And in that moment, I did what simply felt right. I let the handshakes linger, forcing each man to look me in the eyes, to see the smile on my face. And I told each one, “Mr. So and So, I am SO proud of you.”

 

I’m sure you can guess what happened next. The pride, the stoicism, the steadfast resoluteness, melted away. Smiles replaced the stone-cold rigidity on their faces. They became like children again. Some giggled. Some stared at their certificate in awe. One young man who’s struggled mightily in class, looked at me and said, “No, I’m the one that’s proud of this.”

 

I close this letter with an encouragement for each of you. Smile. Even when you don’t want to, even when you’ve been up since 5 am cooking pasta in a kitchen that’s way too small and holds all the heat from the oven. I promise it will have profound effects. Just like my peace lily that gets all sad and weepy when I neglect it, a little love and tenderness can turn things around, leading to joyfulness and prosperity. This world is thirsty. Shower it with God’s love.

 

Have a blessed day.

 

Spencer

Writing Poems in Prison

“Wiggle your toes,” I said.

Ahmeze laughed nervously.
 
“Come on, try it,” I implored.
 
He took a deep breath, then proceeded.
 
The assignment was simple – write a poem, one page or less, and incorporate at least one of the plants we’ve learned this semester. You see, every week when I teach horticulture, I bring a USB with me that has a PowerPoint slide that contains our “Plant of the Week.” The students look at pre-loaded images of a plant – its flowers, leaf shape, and habit, then are asked to memorize its scientific name, common name, and family name. For many of these students, this is their first experience with Latin, so we repeat the correct pronunciation until their lips find the correct shapes required to say “Chaenomeles speciosa” three times fast. The idea behind this task is two-fold: 1) to help them understand and know the natural world around them and 2) to practice their memorization skills. Furthermore, they get a genuine kick out of knowing the plants they see on TV: “Wait, so those big blooming things in the background at The Masters are azaleas?!”
 
Before I introduced our assignment on poetry and plants, I asked for those who had ever written poetry before to raise their hand; maybe three went up. I walked them through a couple different forms of poetry with accompanying examples – odes, epics, haikus, limericks. I then gave them some time to sit and write and much to my dismay, the nineteen 17-year-olds I had that day did not sit quietly and think deep poetic thoughts as I hoped they would – they immediately started talking and goofing off. Half of them didn’t even have a pen or pencil to write with, let alone paper. I asked those who had to share with those who had not. The 15 minutes dragged by slowly, and looking around, I saw that maybe three students had written anything at all. I extended our writing time saying, “I can be here all day if we need to, but each of you will have to write something and get up here and present.” Finally, the rowdier students got the hint and reluctantly began to write. They’d been locked in their dorm for two weeks with no access to programming and little time outside their single-man cells. Who could blame them for being nearly uncontrollable? They are 17 after all.
 
The students in the front row began first. Each young man was asked to stand up, tell us their name, and the title of their poem. The students would be grading each other and I would average their scores together. Afterwards, they were to turn their poems in to me.

From middle school until I was a freshman in college, my face was scarred with acne. Having acne as a teenager makes you want to be invisible, to hide behind masks and remain unseen. Speaking in front of others is a nightmare – you think they’re all going to be looking at your face rather than hearing the words you say. When I was that acne-ridden child, all I wanted to be, most of the time, was unseen, unheard, and unnoticed. I know how terrifying it is to have to stand in front of a room and project confidence when you are everything but assured.
 
Many of these young men I teach feel the same way. They are functionally illiterate. Their faces bear scars and tattoos. They don’t get these tattoos because they’re tough or they think they look good – they get these tattoos because they help them form a mask. If I have an ice cream cone tattooed on my cheek you might not notice my missing teeth – teeth that my father knocked out, teeth that rotted away from methamphetamine use. If I get tear drops tattooed underneath my eyes you might think I’m violent and be scared to have a conversation with me. If I cover my face in ink to make me look like a clown, you might not notice the pain that hides behind my eyes, the sadness that permeates my soul. People look like strange freaks not to stand out, but to make you purposefully look away or avoid them.
 
I knew the task ahead – standing in front of their peers and reading a poem – would terrify many of my students. I was insistent though. One day, no matter how long their sentence, I believe each of them will stand before a Parole Board representative and have to speak for themselves. I want them to be prepared, to have the confidence that they have spoken in front of others before and can do it again, especially when their freedom and future is on the line.
 
The first few students struggled mightily. We applauded their efforts, nonetheless. One student, Charlie, read his poem quietly. It wasn’t that good if we’re being honest. But at home that evening, I noticed he had written another poem, except this one was crossed out.
 
Charlie is a quiet kid, the others make fun of him for his genial nature and tall, lanky, string-bean appearance. He’s constantly picked on and the butt of many a joke. I doubt Charlie has ever had anyone tell him he’s good at anything. He’s got a heart of gold though. The scratched out poem was titled “It’s a Beifull [sic] Day.”
 
I stand here alone
All on my own
Not much to say
But How is your
        day
 
After a few more poems, I called a timeout and shared with them a story my mom had told me. A couple years ago, Amy Grant fell off her bike and suffered a horrific traumatic brain injury. She had to relearn the lyrics to her songs, the very songs she had written and performed for decades. She was asked to speak at the White House during her recovery. She was terrified. One piece of advice she was given by Sheryl Crow was that when nervous on stage, focus on wiggling your toes; it’ll distract you and make you forget about the crowd in front of you.
 
The room fell silent. Every young man sitting before me was wiggling his toes. A few seconds later, a collective burst of laughter broke out, “Mr. Spencer, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” I couldn’t help but laugh too.

We continued with the poems. Another excerpt, this one from Cole.
 
The Southern Magnolia is a significant tree
See it has beauty to share from its flowers to its leaves
It’s a tree that helps people believe
That nature is for every human being.
 
Towards the end, one student outright refused to present. I told him that was fine, that we could sit and wait. “I don’t have another class after this til 7 PM, so we’ve got 5.5 hours to kill, buddy.” He was adamant. He would not go. We sat and waited. Some of the other students began to cajole him - they had phone calls to make back in the dorm, shows to watch. I folded my arms over my chest and leaned back on the table, seemingly carefree and in no hurry. I thought back to our previous class with a different group of juveniles a year ago. Hagan had refused to present, just like this young man. We waited just like we were now. Finally, Hagan got up to speak, glaring me down menacingly. He read his poem and received a much-unexpected vigorous round of applause. His poem was beautiful and heartfelt, recounting the memory of a lost love through the lens of a bee looking for his queen. His classmates voted it as the best poem that year. Hagan went on to graduate as our class salutatorian. This year, he was quick to present his poem and once again received a rousing round of applause afterwards. He ended this year’s poem like so:
 
A lot of stuff doesn’t make sense
Plants grow, Flowering Quince
Shout out my favorite teacher
Mr. Spence
 
I’m frequently asked if I would ever consider changing careers. Get out of here. I mean, come on.
 
But back to the class. The student who refused to budge, Dery, was fuming. He finally asked if he could go last, and I replied, “Only if you promise to present.” He agreed.
 
The class clown got up next to read. I knew to check his paper first, and sure enough, it had several vulgar phrases and two different gang references. I took a pen and marked through the parts that were inappropriate, then took a quick look-over, thinking it just might work. He looked at the paper and said, “Mr. Spence, you took out too much. I can’t read this.” I told him he wrote it, so he would have to read it. He began, stammered, then uttered a croak of sorts. He stopped.
 
“Wiggle your toes,” I said.
 
Ahmeze began reading once more.
 
“The roses are blue.”
 
He threw the paper down.

“This wiggling thing isn’t working!”
 
I stood next to him to reassure him, “You can do it.”
 
The roses are blue
My mom told me don’t rob
Just be good
It wasn’t no love
Coming out the hood
 
Ain’t got that long
I’m on the way home
I steal a lot
I just can’t help it
 
She said she love me
I never felt it
 
I was in kinder garden [sic]
Ain’t know my ABCs
Now I’m 17
 
He paused, sheepishly looking up. His classmates were smiling, ready to applaud him. He beamed. I told him, “See, when you take out all the mess, all the dirtiness, there’s good there.” He nodded his head, genuinely listening to – and believing – me. He walked on clouds back to his desk.

It was time for Dery to go. He’s a heavier kid, one of the very few Hispanic kids in his dorm, thus, a target. He read a three-line poem; I can’t remember it verbatim, but the last line mentioned “I hope for all of us to go home.” His classmates whooped and hollered. I gave him a big pat on the shoulder and thanked him for sticking with it. He refused to give me his copy of the poem. I think he was proud of it and wanted to keep it for himself.
 
E. A. Robinson described poetry as “language which tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that cannot be said.”
 
Most of these kids have never read Aulden or Byron or Frost. They know how to express their emotions through violence. Fists replace words. They’re repeating behaviors that are learned. Their music, movies, and video games extol the virtues of robbery, gambling, vice, and murder. Through a little horticulture class that meets once a week, we can show them so much more, goodness, beauty, Christ’s love, Southern Magnolias, Flowering Quinces.
 
Anne Lamott writes of a priest who says, “Sometimes, Heaven is just a new pair of glasses.”
 
For these boys, my hope and prayer is that we can play a role, however small it is, in helping them find those new pair of glasses and see the world – and themselves – differently. To see themselves as image bearers of the Creator.
 
Thanks for reading along and have a blessed day.
 
Spencer

The Student Saves the Teacher

Paul Simon sings, “You’ve got to learn how to fall before you learn how to fly.”

Well, there I was, learning how to fall, although at this particular moment, I certainly didn’t want to be falling. I was helpless, quickly plummeting to the ground while attached to an utterly useless 9.8 mm rope.
 
It was Sunday, I had arranged to pick up Tom early in the morning and then take him to lunch afterwards. We’d then visit the rock climbing gym and go climbing. What could go wrong?
 
Tom called Saturday morning. His probation officer scheduled a visit to his residence on Sunday morning, so he wasn’t going to be able to make it to church. He still wanted to climb though. I told him that was fine.
 
Tom was bright-eyed as we walked into the gym, the main wall casting a formidable and imposing shadow over his curly hair. “Spence, we’re going to be climbing that?” he muttered in amazement. Yup.

My friend Bethany and I helped him get his harness and shoes on. Bethany started climbing first as I belayed her from below. No issues at all as I showed Tom how to safely hold the rope. It was my turn to climb next, so Bethany and I switched roles. I tightened my shoes. I had broken my ankle climbing five weeks ago and this was my first time back in the gym. I was giddy with excitement. Climbing is one way I communicate with God – as in “God, please help me get up and down this wall safely because this is scary.” In moments of anxiousness and despair I turn to prayer, and in moments of beauty and joy, I offer thanks. I’ve learned through climbing that God has gifted our bodies to move and bend in ways we could never imagine.
 
I started up the wall and quickly reached the top. I told Bethany I was ready to be lowered, and then, all the sudden, I began to fall.
 
I weighed too much for Bethany. The rope was slipping through her hands. I plummeted towards the ground.
 
I wish I could say something flashed before my eyes or I had some great epiphany. I didn’t. All I knew in that moment was that I was falling very fast and this wasn’t going to end well. I’d heard a rumor a few months prior that someone else had fallen like this recently and broken their back. I hoped I wouldn’t break my back, but I knew my ankle was going to shatter upon impact.
 
It was over almost instantly. I hit the crash pads on the ground, left leg extended below me, right leg stretched out front at a ninety-degree angle. Bethany laid crumpled on the ground, Tom stood over her in shock. Her face conveyed extreme bewilderment and I could immediately smell burning flesh. She held her hand out, staring at it in disbelief. I thought I could see bone from where the rope burned through her hand.

I asked if she was okay, and she nodded in silence. I rushed to untie her from the rope, and Tom kept asking over and over again, “What happened? What went wrong? How did that just happen?”
 
We ran over to the check-in desk for the first aid kit. Bethany was in shock, her hand quivering, her voice broken and frantic. The girl working the desk looked at her hand, tossed us the first aid kit, and rushed off – the sight and smell of her burnt hands was simply too much for her. I cleaned her wounds and bandaged them, reassuring her the whole time that she was okay, that she would heal in no time at all. I acted like I’d seen and done this a thousand times before and Bethany believed me.
 
Once her wounds were clean and her hand was sitting on ice, we sat to hash out what went wrong. It was simple, Bethany couldn’t handle my weight and the rope quickly burned through her hands, causing her to lower me at an extremely rapid rate. Tom and I sat in amazement at the simple fact that I was unhurt. After all, I had plummeted 60+ feet in seconds. Bethany said Tom saved her. I asked how.
 
As soon as she started to lower me, Bethany was lifted off the ground by my weight. Tom, with no training and the speed of a leopard, pounced, holding her shoulders down, preventing her from being lifted off the ground, preventing me from spiraling in a free-fall to the ground. His quick thinking provided just enough friction on the rope to slightly arrest my fall and spare my spine from a sure fracture. I was amazed. Tom had saved me. Tom had kept me intact. This former student of mine had rescued me from certain injury.

All too often our work can feel never-ending. Few students go home. I can count four adult students from Burruss (Tom included) that have been released in the three years I’ve been working for HeartBound. It’s all too easy to become depressed upon seeing the same worn faces week after week, year after year.
 
Small moments of success make all the difference. This climbing incident was no small moment, for certain, but a beautiful reminder from God that even when the best laid plans of man - church, lunch, climbing – often go astray, He’s there for us, to guide and protect. Without Tom there, I could have broken my back or done irreparable harm to my healing ankle. But God had a plan for me, just as He has always had a plan for Tom, and just as He always has a plan for the 52,000 men, women, and children incarcerated in Georgia. Our job at HeartBound is simply to follow in faith and help people seek and find God’s plan for their lives. Thank you for helping HeartBound reach hearts bound by prison walls.
 
Have a blessed day.
 
Spencer

"I realized at that moment, I was free."

The book had been sitting on my shelf for too long.

The time had come. I had to finish this thing.
 
I almost dreaded the task. The font was too small, and I had to strain to read each sentence. The story was too personal. I didn’t want to know what lay ahead. Also, it was a really long book – I knew that if I picked it up, I would have to finish it. The author was counting on me.
 
My teaching assistant for the horticulture class at Burruss Correctional Training Center has spent over 40 years in prison. Forty years.
 
Nearly ten years ago, he put his story on paper, self-publishing a book called “Memoir of a Malcontent.” He had given me part 1 a few months ago, promising to try and get his hands on part 2. Finally, he came through – it’s been sitting on my shelf for over a month now. Part 1 detailed his traumatic childhood – an alcoholic mother, mostly non-present father, drug abuse. It wasn’t an easy read, although his humor made it worth the read. I knew that part 2 would detail his later years, including what led him to commit murder at age 24. This man is a friend now. Not only does he help me teach, but he’s a personal mentor and I’ve spent nearly every Tuesday with him for three years now. When I teach, there’s no guard in the room; I trust this man with my life.
 
I read nearly all 250 pages of part 2 last night. I only put it down when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. This morning, I settled onto my porch with a mug of coffee and a few pages remaining. What I read floored me.

Eleven years or so ago, my teaching assistant’s brother-in-law was accidentally transferred to the same prison as him. This was due to a state oversight – by no means should the two have ever been remotely near each other. You see, my assistant, in an act of rage and unspeakable violence, shot this man’s sister, mother, and father. I will spare you the details – it was horrifying, unthinkable, tragic, a culmination of poor life choices and unimaginable trauma and abuse. There’s no earthly forgiveness for such an act.
 
My assistant was walking to the chow hall one day when he heard his name called out from behind. Turning, he slowly recognized the weathered face of his former brother-in-law. He anxiously scanned the man up and down, searching for a weapon. The brother-in-law approached, asking for time to talk. Life had not been good to him. They agreed to meet on the yard later that day.
 
What happened next defies logic. The two men sat in the shade and caught up, detailing where life had taken them over the last thirty years, where they had gone wrong, how they both had ended up in prison. My assistant apologized over and over and over. Tears flowed, forgiveness reigned down, and at the end of the two-hour conversation, they embraced, then shook hands. The brother-in-law then invited my assistant to attend a church service later that evening; someone special would be speaking.

I’ll let the book take over now.
 
“We sat next to each other four rows from the front on the end near the aisle, and since I didn’t think to bring my Bible, he held his in his hands so I could follow the scriptural reading with him. Hollywood Henderson was a huge Black Man who kept the crowd rolling with laughter as he gave anecdotes about his life at Rivers State Prison and selling drugs on the streets. We had a good time, that is until Henderson turned serious and spoke about the Virgin Mary and a mother’s love for her child. His message hit my brother-in-law hard.
 
Tears began to flow, and the longer Henderson talked about a mother’s love the harder he cried, unable to restrain himself although he tried. Lord have mercy, I thought, feeling like the bottom of a dung heap as I tried to comfort him, placing my arm around his shoulders, essentially holding him; ironic in and of itself since I was the man who caused him such a terrible loss…
 
I didn’t know how my brother-in-law truly felt about me until the day he told me that in the short time we’d been together, he felt better than he had in many years and was finally able to sleep peacefully. He said that he knew for a fact that the healing had begun and he was glad God brought us together.”
 
My assistant ends his book with this. “To a man serving life in prison hope must be deliberately chosen. Standing next to my cell as the officer announced head count; I decided to be a survivor. I decided to choose hope and accept the opportunity to experience forgiveness. Knowing that basic truth filled my heart with peace, and I knew that regardless of where I am and the conditions under which I’d lived I’d be alright.... I realized at that moment; that even though I stood at casual attention in a state penitentiary and was serving life, I was Free. Now this memoir of bruises, a broken childhood, and toxic relationships can cease. I am looking into the distance and I see hope in whatever future that God will grace me to see. When I entered the walls of this prison, I was a 24-year-old broken young man. As I’m closing this memoir, today is my 63rd birthday.”

Here's what my assistant doesn’t know – that event with Hollywood Henderson over ten years ago was hosted by HeartBound Ministries. We were in my assistant’s life long before I ever met him inside the walls of Burruss Correctional Training Center. God used this ministry to help him and his brother-in-law heal. Glory be to God!
 
Together, we use the book to help incarcerated young men tell their own story. We read a chapter out loud as they listen, encouraging them to write down parts that resonate with their own lives. Unsurprisingly, most of what stands out to them are acts that they can relate to – family abuse, knife fights, sleepless nights. Why are we doing this? Each one of these young men has a story. I can tell you that there are over forty 17-year-olds at Burruss Correctional Training Center right now, over 40 young men who have been charged, found guilty, and sentenced as adults. Their average sentence is well past 30 years; some of them have even been sentenced to life without parole. They are 17 and in all likelihood, they will die in prison one day.
 
I can tell you all this and you might understand, or you might even become disheartened or angry or maybe even apathetic. We cannot excuse these kids’ behavior – they’ve done things that hurt others, that risk our collective public safety. No matter how you feel about them, what you can’t deny is that there are over 40 stories there at Burruss, over 40 stories that are locked behind a wall, 40 stories that need to be told. So they hear “Memoir of a Malcontent” each week and they write, slowly. We are helping them find their own story. And we help them find God’s story.
 
I don’t know where this project ends. I don’t know if it ever ends.
 
All I know is that this work must be done, and Andrea, for over 20 years now, has been doing it, laying the foundation for something yet to come. God’s still writing HeartBound’s story. Thank you for being a part of it.
 
Spencer

An Unexpected Surprise in Prison

I met a friend for dinner recently who asked me about my work.

We discussed the different programs HeartBound sponsors, why we do what we do, the usual stuff. Finally, she asked the million dollar question, “So what are your students in prison for?”
 
I was honest in my reply, “Not good things. There are men convicted of murder, others of armed robbery. They’ve done some horrible things, but I don’t think those things should define them.”
 
She flippantly replied, “Yeah, I don’t think you should be teaching those kind of people. Just lock them up or put them to death.”
 
I wish I could report that I was taken aback, but I wasn’t. I understood her sentiment; our society is hyper-focused on retribution, not reconciliation.

There really wasn’t any point in arguing. The only way you can see past the crimes that these men have committed is to know them and to see, “the commonality of our sinfulness”, as Cole Huffman says. “There’s a dominant impulse,” Huffman preached one recent Sunday, “to divide the world into the innocent, the victim, the guilty, and the victimizers… If we look at sinfulness as bad person-ism, we think people are bad. Sin doctrine is a leveler. It pulls all of the superiority out of you. We are not all guilty of the same thing, but we are all guilty of something.” Unless we can see the “commonality of our sinfulness”, it’s all too easy to define people by the worst decision they’ve ever made.
 
At Burruss, I spoke about the conversation I had with my friend. I explained my thoughts to the students.
 
Later in the class, I asked the students to write one page about someone who made a sacrifice for them and how that sacrifice made them feel. Nearly every paper was about how their mom made sacrifices for them and the family – giving up college, going hungry, leaving an abusive relationship. One letter was different though; it was about a lawyer. The student went on to describe how they were facing the death penalty and when no one else would, this lawyer took up his case and defended him, successfully demonstrating the defendant’s lack of culpability and assisting them in pleading to reduced charges.
 
I was shocked when I read his paper. This student is undoubtedly one of my top five students in a class of 50. He’s well-spoken, a leader of men, a thoughtful writer and a skilled debater. I knew nothing of his back story. My head was swimming – imagine if this man, one of my best students, had been deemed irredeemable and put to death? He’s now a mentor to young men in prison, and a living testament that with God, change is possible. He’s an invaluable asset inside and outside the classroom, but one that the state of Georgia once considered killing.

I reached out to the attorney mentioned in the paper and told her about what I did. I shared how one of my students wrote a paper expressing gratitude for how she had saved his life. I went on to explain how valuable this student was to the classroom, how he was thoughtful and kind and everything you could ask for in a student. I thanked her for what she did for him. I thanked her for giving him the opportunity to have an impact on my life and in our classroom.

I told her that if she’d ever like to shadow one of HeartBound’s classes, she’d be welcome. She expressed interest and returned the necessary paperwork. I told her I couldn’t tell her who had written the essay, but perhaps he would be in one of my classes.
 
She accompanied me to the prison classroom but to my dismay, the student I had hoped for her to see was gone! I was almost frantic! I asked another student to try and find him and a couple minutes later, they walked in together. Almost immediately, the student’s eyes met those of his former lawyer. They hadn’t seen each other in some time.
 
Tears filled his eyes as they smiled at one another from across the room. I called roll, then asked for our first book report of the day. Two requirements for my courses are: 1) bring a pen and paper and 2) read at least one book every week and be prepared to present in front of the class. I went through the roster and “randomly” landed on a name for this week’s presentation, the teary-eyed student sitting way in the back, the man who faced death but was now very much alive.

He had read a book of Robert Frost’s poetry. He carefully explained what motifs Frost used, how the poems made him feel, what he liked, and what he disliked. He spoke of Frost’s apparent depression, how it affected his writing, how it made him so sad while reading that he had to put down the book at times. I asked him where he thought that depression came from, how could a man with fortune and fame feel so sad and alone? His response was delicate and sympathetic. I could tell that he had carefully thought it through.
 
I have had one prayer on my heart this month, which I’ve borrowed from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
 
Pray discuss it with me; pray enable me to see it a little more clearly, and teach me how to be a little more useful.
 
God is so good to help me see a little more clearly and to teach me how to be a little more useful. All we have to do is ask Him.
 
I hope you have a blessed day.
 
Spencer

Proclaiming Freedom for the Captives

I count many incarcerated people among my friends.

I see these friends every week; we exchange thoughts on life, incarceration, religion, goodness, evil, and plants. We discuss the books we are reading, debate the merits of “plant-based pizza,” and write down our hopes and dreams for the future.
 
One of my friends has spent over two decades in prison. This past week, he shared a message with a group of 40-or-so “free people” and 48 “incarcerated people” at Walker State Prison.  He quoted Isaiah 61:1:
 
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
   because the LORD has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
   to proclaim freedom for the captives
   and release from darkness for the prisoners

He said he doesn’t like this scripture because it mentions “freedom for the captives” and how it seemingly applies to his current situation. He’s realistic – he knows he probably isn’t going to magically be set free soon. But this scripture helps him realize that despite his circumstances, he is free.
 
He exclaimed to the room of free people and inmates alike, “God makes us free; we are liberated.”
 
Prison can only confine the body, not the soul. Some people living in prison are freer than us on the outside. What I witness among many of our students is that their spirits are free. They are thriving spiritually, building community, and proclaiming the Gospel in the unlikeliest of places. It is such an honor and privilege to be able to walk alongside them and learn from them.

Please continue to pray that those in prison – incarcerated people and staff - will be set free in spirit and mind. We know that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) That is our hope for every person we come in contact with each day. 
 
Thank you and have a blessed day.
 
Spencer

"A slice of God's goodness."

I was a little incredulous.

To enter a prison (and leave one), you need your ID with you. Your ID is a big deal in prison. One Returning Hearts volunteer had forgotten her ID, the prison simply wasn't going to let her in. She had rode with a friend up to Walker, it wasn't like she could just turn around and go back home.

So we asked if she'd be comfortable joining our caregiver event at a nearby church for the families of the men participating in our Returning Hearts Celebration. She said yes. The next day, we received this email.

Yesterday was a “wrinkle in time” where I got to see a slice of God’s goodness, His love. 

Because of my snafu with my ID (so sorry about that!), I had the privilege of going to Center Grove Baptist Church. 

I drove country roads to this little Baptist church. I got out of my car thinking, well this should be interesting. 

But the spirit of the Lord was so evident in these beautiful people. They loved on these women (grandmothers, wives, etc) of prisoners. Once again I was amazed at God and His love. Several of the women said later how scared they were to come inside the church. Most churches are so judgmental and look at them warily. Not this church. 

The ladies cooked homemade breakfast, home made lasagna, created rooms for drivers to take a nap, (some drove from south Ga. so their kids could see their daddy), we sang songs, watched a movie and talked a lot. 

I met a new friend named T*****. She seemed very stand-offish at first. But we got to chatting and laughing. She had worked all night and then drove her daughter to visit because “it’s the best day of the year!!"  At the end of the day she shared that she wants to “give back” in 2026 when her boyfriend/future husband gets out of Walker. He became a believer recently and is sharing his Bible study notes with her. (I think his name is Chris). 

Now she wants to plan her visitations on Sunday afternoons so she and her daughter can go to church at Center Grove. That is a special church (many of the members have had children at Walker so they get it). 

Thank you for you both for your labors of love for prisoners and their families! I am so blessed by your ministry. 


Thank you to E.B. for sharing and to Center Grove Baptist Church for being so welcoming. Blessings to you all.

Spencer

Coming Home After 5 Years in Prison. Tom's Story

I like to listen to music when I write.

Funny enough though, when I was younger and listening to music, I rarely heard the lyrics – what was more important to me was the melody, how the song made me feel in my soul. I remember riding with someone as a sophomore in college and they asked me if I had ever listened to the lyrics of a particular song that was playing. I was dumbfounded. I recall my response being, “Of course not, is that something people do?”
 
Since that moment I’ve tried to be a more active listener and consequently, music has become so much more meaningful to me. One song in particular has stood out to me lately, “Walkin’ In The Sun” by Fink. The lyrics go like this:
 
Things have been going wrong
long enough to know,
everythin' is right.
 
Been walkin' in the dark
long enough to know.
Finally seein' the light.
 
I've been losing
long enough to know,
when I finally won.
 
And even the blind man can tell,
when he's walkin' in the sun.
 
I find that we humans are all too often blind. Maybe our blindness is caused by the hustle and bustle of life. Other times the blindness is out of our control. Sometimes, perhaps, the blindness is simply what we want or what we need at the time. Regardless of how or why, we’re all blind at some point or the other.
 
Still, as the song says, even the blind can tell when they’re walking in the sun. And friends, I’d like to tell you about Sunday when I was walking in the sun.
 
Most of our ministry is conducted behind razor wire. The average prison sentence in Georgia is close to 30 years, so a majority of our students aren’t going home any time soon. Since I started at HeartBound three years ago, I have had three students released. Three.
 
It’s nearly impossible to measure the “effectiveness” of our ministry in traditional terms; much of our success is qualitative, although I believe exponential. That’s the nature of ministry behind penitentiary walls. Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit Priest who ministers to gang members in Los Angeles, writes, “Without wanting to, we sometimes allow our preference for the poor to morph into a preference for the well-behaved and the most likely to succeed, even if you get better outcomes when you work with these folks. If success is our engine, we sidestep the difficult and belligerent and eventually abandon the ‘slow work of God.’ Failure and death become insurmountable.”
 
Not everyone in Father Boyle’s program succeeds. Some relapse, others succumb to gang life and criminality, still others are gunned down.
 
Not all of our program participants succeed. It’s discouraging. But when you’re fighting poverty, undiagnosed learning disabilities, poor mental healthcare treatment, and unimaginable violence and trauma, you’re going to fail sometimes.
 
That’s why I’m so happy to share this small story of success with you.

Tom [not his real name] was one of my first horticulture students when I joined HeartBound Ministries. At the time, he was 17 years old, fresh to “prison prison,” having recently arrived at Burruss Correctional Training Center upon his 17th birthday. He’d been locked up since he was 14 and had spent time in juvenile facilities across the state.
 
When Tom arrived at Burruss, prisons nationwide were locked down due to the coronavirus. Volunteers were barred from serving inside. But God gave us favor and we were allowed to minister inside the walls.
 
What I saw broke my heart. There were 20 17-year-olds like Tom. They all smelled bad. They were all struggling to work to get their GEDs. They were all underfed and incredibly bored. Due to staffing restrictions, they would be locked in their cells at 5 PM on Fridays and kept there until 8 AM on Monday. I learned to not teach on Mondays – nobody could pay attention after being cooped up all weekend.
 
Tom was a quiet kid who kept to himself. There was a softness in his voice that you don’t often hear in prison. He enrolled in our Pups in Prison dog training program, followed by our art class and then our horticulture class. I saw Tom nearly every week.
 
Then one day, he disappeared. He had turned 18 and had been moved to the adult population. All those hours we had put in, all that ministry, seemed to evaporate. I was heartbroken.
 
Then one day, Tom slinked back into our horticulture class. I could tell he wasn’t doing well. He looked like a ghost – eyes hollow, skin pale and gaunt, teeth stained yellow. My heart fell.
 
But I didn’t judge him. That’s not my job and after all, I get to leave at the end of the class, my students don’t. I can never fully understand their pain even though I can sympathize with it. I just continued to love him and encourage him and did my best to keep showing up (one student of mine wrote on a feedback form, ‘Anytime I mess up he does not throw it in my face and he makes me feel more like myself’).
 
Some days with Tom were good, and others were bad. Sometimes I could see a brightness in his eyes; other times I was looking at a shell of a young man. Tom kept asking for assistance in finding a home for him to parole out to, but nowhere would take him because of his record and his age. As the saying goes, “the struggle is real”.

Slowly, Tom’s max-out date approached, the day when the Department of Corrections would be forced to push him out the door whether he had a home to go to or not. Tom approached me one class with good news - a halfway house for young men had an open bed. Better than being homeless, I thought.
 
Tom got out last Thursday. I met him for church on Sunday. We sang songs of worship, then he met my pastor, my friends, my community. We all went to lunch afterwards. He thought there was no way he’d be able to eat his massive enchilada. He left two bites behind. “The outside food is so good.” I laughed thinking it was decent Mexican food at best.
 
I drove him home, promising to meet him again Tuesday to practice driving and make a resume. We found an old parking lot and I let him give it a go. Afterwards, we went to lunch, worked on a resume and cover letter for a job at a dog shelter, then set up an email and budget for him. Towards the end of our lunch, he mentioned how he had gone for a three-mile run that morning but had to stop because his feet hurt. He was still running in his prison tennis shoes. I offered to buy him a pair of running shoes. He accepted only after I showed him my own budget and how I had money left over to spend this month. I plugged in “Running Shoes Store” into the GPS and we made our way to Atlantic Station. We soon arrived.
 
As we walked into the store, I realized this was no “running shoes” store. These were fashion shoes – Nike, New Balance, bright lights and neon colors. I wanted to walk out immediately, but I saw Tom’s face light up. He is a guy after all. I asked him if he wanted to look at the shoes. “No,” he replied, “I’m all good.” I asked him if he liked shoes. “I’ve never really owned my own shoes,” he said. “I’ve been wearing orange Crocs for the past five years.”
 
I told him we should at least look. When we got to the wall of Nikes, I could see his face light up in child-like wonder. Then he took a look at the price tag and recoiled. I told him it was okay, if there was something he liked, I would get it.
 
We walked along the wall while I explained “fashion” and how New Balance is now “in” (side note: are they?). He took it all in, eyes wide and a big smile on his face. I asked him what brand he liked. He tried to grab a pair of Chuck Taylor’s that had a big “60% OFF” sticker on them, but I told him they were out of style at the moment. We wandered back to the Nike wall.
 
So many choices, so many colors, so many styles. I sat back and let him be a big kid again, looking at shoes. I looked down at his faded brown loafers he had been given at the County Re-Entry Office. He kept looking back at me like none of what was happening was real. I nodded along, offering words of encouragement. He tried on a few pairs but couldn’t decide. He sent some pictures to a friend who replied, “Anything will be better than those LOAFERS you got on.” I laughed.

He reached for the middle rack and grabbed a pair of black and white tennis shoes. He paused, then looked at me and said, “These are the ones.”
 
I paid and we practically skipped out the door. We then went to an actual running shoe store. On the drive there, we passed the Ansley Park neighborhood. The beauty about blew his 19-year-old mind. He tried on a pair of Brooks and a pair of Hokas. “Spencer, I never knew shoes were this comfortable.” He settled on a pair of Brooks. The man at the counter was kind enough to give me 10% off when I told them it was Tom’s first pair of running shoes. It’s refreshing to see this goodness in the most ordinary of days.
 
I drove Tom home as we discussed what freedom has looked like. “Some days I feel bipolar, like I’m happy to be free then another second I’m terrified to go back to prison.” His parole officer has been difficult, twice threatening to “escort” him back to prison if he didn’t drop everything and get to her office. He doesn’t know how to drive, his dad works during the day, and an Uber from South Fulton to Downtown Atlanta isn’t exactly cheap. Life hasn’t been easy for him since he was released, but I think Sunday was a step in the right direction. Literally.
 
“Walkin’ in the sun. Things have been going wrong, now, everything is right.”
 
We are so often desperate to right the wrongs, to grant justice where there has been injustice, to do everything we can for everyone and anyone. But sometimes, that’s not what we need to do. Anne Lamott writes: “God isn’t there to take away our suffering or our pain but to simply fill it with his presence.”
 
Maybe God’s in a pair of black and white tennis shoes or a pair of Brooks running shoes.
 
Tom texted me after his run this morning.
 
“Running shoes are freaking awesome! I ran almost 4 times as much running not including short walking periods. Thank you for everything. I had a blast yesterday.”
 
Thanks for being a part of HeartBound’s journey in the sun.
 
Spencer

"My daughter told me 'It was the best day ever.'"

We all have to begin somewhere.

We had just wrapped our Returning Hearts Celebration at Burruss Correctional Training Center. The day was more perfect than we could ever hope for or imagine.
 
I didn’t sleep well the next two days; I wasn’t quite sure why. My body and mind were exhausted, but I couldn’t seem to find rest. I wanted to cancel my horticulture class the following Tuesday at Burruss, but God kept telling me, “Show up. I’ll do the rest.”
 
I made the drive down. One of our horticulture students, Torrence, had participated in our Returning Hearts Celebration three days prior.
 
If there’s one thing you should know about Torrence, it’s that he’s brilliant. For one of our weekly book reports, he read “Nostromo” by Joseph Conrad. He has multiple master’s degrees and I’ll be quite frank – it’s really intimidating to have him in the classroom because he can fact check me in about 0.01 seconds and call me out if I’m wrong.

As he entered the classroom, he paused and extended his hand. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Thank you for what you all did for us Saturday. My daughter told me ‘It was the best day ever.’”
 
I thanked him and told him, “Torrence, it was so cool to see you be a dad.”
 
He replied, “Yeah, well, it’s what I’m best at.”
 
We don’t know what sort of ramifications Returning Hearts will have for the 22 children who attended. We don’t know how many relationships will be repaired, how many kids will go on to be doctors, or lawyers, or preachers, or how many hearts will come to Christ. We can’t quantify how the dads, or guards, were positively changed that day.
 
What we do know for certain, however, is that it was a small beginning.

And the Lord loves small beginnings.

“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hand.” - Zechariah 4:10
 
As we walked out of Burruss that Tuesday, my mind and body felt exhausted, but my soul felt renewed. Less than 24 hours later, we were at the Atlanta Transitional Center, helping to host a program called Money Talks with the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office. Twenty-eight men sat in front of us; 28 men who were there to learn about credit and investing and saving. They were there to learn how to get their financial lives back on track. They wanted to break generational cycles of poverty. Forty percent of children with an incarcerated parent live in poverty; no parent wants their child to grow up poor. Panelist after panelist shared personal stories of failures, of successes, of financial security and stability. For an hour and a half, the entire room was captivated, diligently taking notes and nodding along.

Later that evening, a student at Emory was at the Center to lead a workshop on value-based investing. The next day, I was at Metro Regional Youth Detention Center teaching guitar to incarcerated young men. Grace was burning Little Readers DVDs, Chaplain John was driving all over the state ministering to the fenced-in flock, Fred Eason was leading art classes, Lucy Fugate, Patti, Laura, Elizabeth, and Fondi were teaching quilting, Yancey, Sandra, Kay, Rachel and Jeanne were leading Bible studies and art lessons, Chaplain Omar was meeting with a young man who was about to begin a two-year prison sentence, Andrea was at a residential substance abuse facility in Nashville filming women for Little Readers, Matt and Adrienne were providing free trauma-counseling, and Sarah and Immanuel Anglican Church were painting and praising the Lord inside the razor wire. I’m not even going to try and recount the many inmate-led programs going on at the same time.
 
Small beginnings. Big impact. Thanks for making it possible.
 
Spencer

Here's Why Returning Hearts Matters to Those in Prison

When HeartBound hosts our Returning Hearts Celebrations, I like to work the check-in table for families.

Why? For many of the children, this will be their first visit to prison. They’re staring up at imposing guard towers and menacing chain-link fences adorned with row after row of concertina wire. Their caregiver is usually apprehensive too – “I’m dropping off my child with these strangers for what?”
 
Our job at check-in is to quell these fears, to put on a smiling face and encourage them that it’ll all be alright.
 
Check in at Burruss’ Returning Hearts a few weeks ago went easy enough, everyone filled out their paperwork and so many caregivers told us how eager they were to go nap or get their nails done at the salon. After everyone was through the gate, I locked up the rest of our supplies and proceeded through the gate. On my way to the gym, I passed the visitation room, where 20 or so families were meeting with their incarcerated loved one.

It was Saturday morning, about 10 AM. The room was painted a stark white, the polished tile floors reflected the glow of the vending machines. Men sat in white plastic chairs, two feet away from their loved ones. A small plastic side table divided the chasm between them.
 
It was so depressing. Visitors and inmates are not supposed to touch or stand up. During visitation you’re just supposed to sit there, across from one another, and talk. For 2 hours.
 
The scene really broke my heart. But I had places to be, so I rushed through on my way to the gym for Returning Hearts. What greeted me was the quite opposite of what I saw in the visitation room. There was joyful music playing, sounds and colors and glowing lights. Children were laughing and running around freely. Boys and their fathers were shooting hoops, tossing cornhole bags, riding horses. It was everything that the sterile visitation room was not.
 
Andrea overheard one daughter tell her father, “I’ve waited so long to hang out with you and play with you all day.”
 
And that’s just what they did. The dad later remarked to Andrea with a smile, “This has ruined visitation for me.”

Nothing we do at HeartBound is revolutionary or ground-breaking. What we do is quite simple. To borrow from Kepler, “we’re just thinking God’s thoughts after him.” Returning Hearts is simple – we turn the prison into a county fair/family reunion and give the guys an opportunity to do what they most want to do – to be good fathers. God wants us to be good fathers. God wants us to play. God wants us to love our children. All we’re doing is helping to make that happen within the walls and the confines of prison.
 
To see those children running around in the sunshine, to see fathers hugging their children while both shed tears, to see a volunteer put their arm around and pray for an inmate, is to see the hand of God.

A nonprofit worker was once asked how she worked with the poor. She replied, “You don’t. You share your life with the poor.”
 
Thank you for supporting HeartBound. For sharing your time, energy, and dollars with the poor, the downtrodden, the cast-aside, the incarcerated. You have made a difference and helped us do “exceedingly, abundantly more than we could ever ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
 
If you feel compelled to give and support HeartBound, you can do so by visiting www.givebutter.com/HeartBound.
 
Thank you.

“This is the most fun I’ve had in three years.”

I am someone who has to speak and write a lot for work. Words come naturally to me. Seldom do I struggle to find the right words to say or write.

 This is an exception.
 
I don’t know how to properly describe to you what happened Saturday at Burruss Correctional Training Center.

I think it was the most perfect day I’ve ever seen. I think I saw God move in a way I’ve never seen Him move before. I think I felt his presence and His guiding hand in a way I’ve never felt before.
 
I think a quasi-miracle happened.
 
The story of Returning Hearts at Burruss Correctional Training Center begins with a “no,” an emphatic “no” at that.

Josh, our Malachi Dads instructor at Burruss (who’s also incarcerated by the way), asked me if HeartBound could sponsor a Returning Hearts for Burruss. My first response was “No.”
 
The reasons were plenty. The staff weren’t ready for an event of this scope. We didn’t have enough volunteers in the area. We already have a Returning Hearts at Walker.  I wasn’t sure we had the resources or energy for a second Celebration.
 
Trust me, these reasons are not unfounded. Returning Hearts is a massive undertaking.
 
But Josh chipped away and Andrea and I sat down with Burruss staff and pitched the idea. The new warden had been at Pulaski State Women’s Prison when we hosted a Returning Hearts Celebration years ago so she was familiar with the concept.
 
She said “Yes.”
 
And so, it began.
 
From the beginning, we encountered problems. Deadlines were missed. Phone calls to families went unanswered or weren’t returned. We had no clue what to expect.
 
And then the day of the Celebration arrived. Andrea, Grace, and I all made a note of how calm we were. We’re usually exhausted by the start of the Celebration, but this year, we were peaceful, in-control, at-ease.
 
When we arrived at 6 AM for setup, the front gate was locked and unmanned. We were not off to a great start. Andrea and I sat in the dark, unsure of what to do, offering silent prayers. We finally reached someone inside the prison who came out to let us in. Precious time had been lost, we were behind schedule, and some correctional staff seemed to have no idea of what was going on.
 
But God was in control. (He always is, by the way.)

Again, I don’t have the words to describe to you what happened next. All our fears and frustrations melted away. Everything went perfectly. Staff members were incredibly helpful, even the ones who normally greet us with a frown were gratuitous and cheerful. The inmates who were serving as helpers played their parts perfectly, making sure no child went without heaps of popcorn, snow cones and cotton candy. The gray, cold sky melted away into a beautiful sea of warm blue. Children were laughing and playing, fathers were being fathers. It was beautiful.

Our guest speaker, Thomas, shared a message of hope with the men and their children. Thomas served 20 years in prison, and he was invited at the request of Josh, our Malachi Dads instructor. I’d never met Thomas, so I had no idea what he would say. His message was beautiful, as good as any speaker we’ve ever had. The men got to spend time with their kids before heading outside for a balloon release and send off. Once everyone had cleared out, Burruss staff let the 17-year-olds at Burruss, juvenile boys who have been charged as adults, out onto the yard to go down the giant slide, play in the bouncy house, and enjoy hot dogs and chips.
 
One juvenile student of mine, Javari, asked me to go down the slide with him. I’ll be the first to tell you, I think I’m too old to be going down slides, but there wasn’t any way I would miss this. Climbing up the slide ladder felt like I was ascending to Heaven. Chaplain John, who will be the first to tell you he is way too old to be going down slides (sorry, Chap!), got to tumble down with some of the very boys he baptized a few short weeks ago. Chaplain John’s kids, Madison and Dow, were even on hand to witness their father’s ministry in action – how perfect is that?!
 
One young man remarked, “This is the most fun I’ve had in three years.” Still another said, “You’re telling me I had to go to prison to get a hot dog, some chips, and a chance to go down a slide?!”

The entire scene was so unreal and so beautiful and so perfect and so Christ-like. I will never forget it. Mary Oliver writes of “the music with nothing playing.” Basking in God’s glory behind the razor wire at Burruss that Saturday, I think I heard angels cheering.
 
One young man, my worst student by far, came up to me and said, “I will never forget what you all did for us today.”
 
To the volunteers that dedicated their time and energy to ensuring this event’s success – thank you. There are riches abounding in Heaven for you. To the staff of Burruss that worked overtime, that said “yes” when they could have said “no,” thank you – you have just turned a page in the chapter of that prison. I promise Burruss will never be the same. To the families that drove hours just to bring their kids for a few hours with dad – thank you – we hope that the memories made Saturday will never be forgotten. To the donors that support our ministry and this Celebration in-turn – thank you – you brought a corner of Heaven to Burruss Correctional Training Center on March 16, 2024. To God, who eased our worries and made ALL OF THIS possible – thank you.
 
So yeah, I think I’ve found the words. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
 
To Him be the glory.
 
Spencer

Happy Father's Day from HeartBound

I believe that man’s highest calling is to be a great father.

 You might find it funny that I should say such a thing, given that I have no children of my own.
 
Given that I lack the experience that comes from being a father, you might be wondering how I arrived at such a conclusion.
 
Two things:

  1. I have a great father.

  2. Every time I visit a prison or a youth detention center, I see just how much a poor father, or a lack of one altogether, affects human beings, both male and female.

I have come to believe that in a vast majority of inmates we meet, there is a hole in their heart that is often in the shape of their father.
 
I recently read Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart. Father Boyle is a Jesuit priest who has served the Los Angeles community for over 40 years. He’s also the founder of Homeboy Industries, a conglomerate of businesses that provide jobs, training, and counseling to former gang members. Los Angeles, in case you didn’t know, has over 1,100 gangs. There are a lot of people hurting in LA. There are also a lot of fathers who are buried in the ground or languishing in jail cells.
 
In his book, Father Boyle tells one story of a “homegirl” who was offered a job in Homeboy Industries but repeatedly failed in her new capacity. She showed up to work high. She caused fights. She mouthed off to her supervisors.
 
Most people would fire such an employee. But not Homeboy. They continued to show her grace.

Mr. Boyle writes, “You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.”
 
At HeartBound, we stand alongside the deeply wounded, those whose burdens are too great to bear. We exist to join in kinship, to make a difference, to turn a new leaf in the lives of these families that we serve.
 
We’re here to take a stand for what is right, to show God’s love to those in prison.

One last quote from Tattoos on the Heart:
 
“Jesus was not a man for others. He was one with others. There is a world of difference in that. Jesus didn’t seek the rights of lepers. He touched the leper even before he got around to curing him. He didn’t champion the cause of the outcast. He was the outcast. He didn’t fight for improved conditions for the prisoner. He simply said, ‘I was in prison.’ The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place - with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.”
 
Happy Father’s Day.
 
God bless you.
 
Spencer and the HeartBound team

What Does an Incarcerated 18-Year-Old Dream Of?

In January, I asked each of the horticulture students at Burruss Correctional Training Center to write down their hopes and dreams.

One of the students finally turned in his list last week.
 
His paper contained the usual items: release, early parole, re-sentencing to adjust for time served. As I approached the bottom of his list, I nearly came to tears.
 
“I dream that I will get to go swimming this year.”

The student that wrote this is 18, but if you looked at him you’d probably guess he isn’t a day past fifteen. I coach middle school baseball and he looks like he belongs on our eighth-grade team. He’s been incarcerated since Valentine’s Day 2023 and his max release date is sometime in 2040. That means he might not walk out the doors of Burruss for another 16 years. He’ll be 34 then.

 
Barring a miracle, he's not going to go swimming this year. Last I checked, there aren’t any swimming pools in any of Georgia’s 33 prisons.
 
His last goal was just as lofty: “I dream that I will get to climb a mountain this year.”
 
Again, I haven’t seen any mountains within the razor wire.
 
He added, “I dream that I will get the chance to climb a mountain this year, whether metaphorically or physically, because I feel like that would make me a better person.”

 

The men and women in prison are like you and me. They’ve made horrible mistakes, done horrible things, but as I hope you see, they have hopes and dreams just like we do. They want to feel free. They want to challenge themselves. They want to go swimming. They need our help. And HeartBound needs your help. We have ambitious goals for 2024. We’d like to expand our counseling services to more incarcerated men and women serving time in the Metro Atlanta area.
 
To do that, we need two things: 1) funds to pay for counselors/therapists, and 2) counselors/therapists that specialize in grief, trauma, family, and addiction treatment and are willing to work with the incarcerated.
 
If you know of anyone that might be interested, please introduce us. If you’d like to support counseling services, you can do so by visiting www.givebutter.com/HeartBound.
 
As always, thanks for your support and for supporting our dreams and the dreams of those in prison.
 
Spencer

“We are not statistics. We are humans that have made mistakes, that deserve the same shot at life given to everyone else.”

I am consistently amazed and humbled while teaching inside prison.

I am a college-educated, mid-20-something who’s never known want or hunger. I graduated in the top ten percent of my high school and colleges, received accolades in school, and worked as a teaching assistant in grad school. I’ve read hundreds of books, subscribe to the print edition of the New York Times, have a working iPhone with instant access to loads of information, yet still, I often find that my students in prison are vastly wiser than me.

Recently, I brought a printout of an Atlanta Journal Constitution article to class. A group of anonymous inmates had written a letter to Governor Kemp suggesting ways to make the Georgia prison system safer and more humane. The Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections, Tyrone Oliver, wrote a rebuttal that was included in the same issue. I divided the students into two groups, one side was to defend Commissioner Oliver, the other the inmate authors. The winning side would receive homemade cheese Danishes from our board member and volunteer Amy Durham as their prize. May the best side win!
 
As you might guess, the men asked to defend Mr. Oliver were NOT happy. Nonetheless, they worked diligently to prepare their defense. The following week we met again and it was time for debate.
 
Their arguments left me stunned. I thought I had a good idea of how to fix this system, but truth be told, their words and arguments were so much more persuasive and intelligent than mine. So much so that I had to share them with you today.

Here's what one student said. “Mr. Oliver may make a good case for himself in providing all the numbers for how he’s raised his staff’s earnings and the 1,000+ shanks and however many kilos of whatever seized during the shakedowns at Smith [State Prison], but he continues to do just as everyone else does that’s a part of this system: missing the ability to see his “Justice Involved Individuals” as simply human, just as himself. This has become the culture in the GDC. With this mindset, only superficial issues will ever be addressed. More pay will not give wisdom, courage, or empathy to staff, nor will it take away greed, immaturity, or stupidity. Taking any number of shanks, phones, drugs, or tobacco will only lead to a momentary solution at best; they will eventually find a way back in. Treating us as property, as cattle, as “animals,” will produce like results.”
 
Another student explained, “If you take a dog and mistreat him, starve him, lock him in cages, refuse to train him, and tell him he’s bad, he’ll act accordingly. But if you give him hope, if you give him an education through training, he can be your best friend.”
 
They concluded by saying, “We are people with families, dreams, and aspirations, just as you do. Given the proper resources, many of us will prosper. Leave us to learn and fend for ourselves, with no hope, no “light at the end of the tunnel,” and many of us will fail. We are not statistics. We are humans that have made mistakes, that deserve the same shot at life given to everyone else.”

I might be the luckiest teacher on the planet to have students like this. It is such a blessing to be able to learn from them each and every week.
 
If you’re interested in fixing this very broken system, here are some ways to help:

  1. Support our ministry through recurring or one-time gifts at www.givebutter.com/HeartBound

  2. Help connect us with others who can help by sharing this email with friends, family, and colleagues

  3. Volunteer at a facility in your area by contacting Spencer (Spencer@HeartBoundMinistries.com)

  4. Pray for the 52,000 men, women, and children incarcerated in Georgia; or

  5. Organize a drive for books, non-perishable food items, hygiene items, and board games.

 
Finally, if you’d like to learn more about the system, I’m always available to speak to youth, church, or neighborhood groups. Part of the way to solve this problem is to make people aware it exists, and that can only be accomplished through advocacy. Many of us will never truly know what goes on behind taxpayer-funded prison walls. One of our goals is to bring awareness, hope, and humanity to “the fenced-in-flock.”
 
Just by reading this, you’re showing you care, and I promise, it makes a difference to the men, women, and youth inside. Thank you.
 
Spencer

Incarceration Hits Home

Prisons do not exist in a vacuum.

Forty-five percent of Americans have had a family member spend time in jail or prison. Ninety-five percent of the men, women, and children that we send to prison are coming home one day. They will be our neighbors. They will sit next to us at traffic lights. Their kids will play next to ours at the park, they’ll shop alongside us at the grocery, and they’ll sit in the pews next to us on Sundays.
 
What happens to our future neighbors while they are incarcerated should be of the utmost importance to Americans – for both the safety of our communities and the future of our nation. In the United States, some one million people are incarcerated every year. One in five black American men born in 2001 is likely to experience incarceration in his lifetime.
 
Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I was in a prison earlier today. If you could see what I see on an almost daily basis, you would be shocked.

My job does not scare me. The men and women we work with are not going to hurt us. What scares me is the possibility that the horrors I see become “normalized” with time. The volunteer I worked with today has been visiting prisons on a near-monthly basis for over a year now. Every single ride back, the car is overcome with melancholy, the sights and scenes leave her feeling sullen. When I first started with HeartBound, I felt the same exact way but now, not so much.
 
I think one off the reasons why I’m not depressed about the state of our prisons anymore is because I know this problem is going to get better. Why? Because Godly men and women are serving in our prisons 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In the darkest depths there is truth being exclaimed, souls being redeemed, hearts being won for Christ. People like you, volunteers and donors alike, make that possible. You ARE making a difference.
 
The work we do at HeartBound Ministries is simple: we reach hearts bound by prison walls. Our Christ-focused curriculums, from beekeeping to quilting to guitar to gardening, are designed to meet the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of the fenced-in-flock. Each week our staff and volunteers minister to men, women, and children deemed too dangerous to be free, many of whom have been condemned to lengthy sentences.
 
Why do we do this work?
 
Because it’s what we’re Biblically called to do. Hebrews 13:3 states, “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoner.”
 
And as I mentioned, these men and women are coming home. How do we want them to return? Vengeful? Addicted? Traumatized?
 
Or…
 
Healed?

I was running on the Belt Line in Atlanta last Friday. I decided to finish my run at the Kroger so I could grab a water. As I bounded up the back stairs, I saw a clear backpack. I paused; I normally only see clear backpacks in prison. A man’s back was turned to me. He was sitting peacefully, looking out on the Belt Line as life moved by. I recognized his profile; he’s one of my former students from prison. I tapped his shoulder and greeted him with a smile. We exchanged a hug. When I asked what he was up to, he said he was “just enjoying the day.”
 
The afternoon sun shone down on us as we sat and talked. Next to us was the Ford Factory Lofts, rent starts in the upper $1,500’s; across the street was Ponce City Market, where a 575 square foot apartment rents for $1,735 a month. Runners and strollers whizzed by, sounds of people on bikes and roller skates, barking from Pomeranians and Labs. Everything moving and spinning and here we were, sitting on the steps outside Kroger, laughing like old friends. I didn’t feel any sort of apprehension as I sat next to this former convict, a man who had once been deemed a threat to society, a man formerly unworthy of freedom. Why? Because I knew my neighbor. I knew he was kind, that he had made mistakes like me, and that he had hopes and dreams for the future. I knew he had been ministered to by me and by Fred and by countless other volunteers. I knew we had made a difference in his life and that he was prepared for freedom.
 
Good things are happening inside our prisons. The problem is that often the good is drowned out by the bad. And there’s a whole lot of bad, believe me. But we can do something about it, together.
 

We ask that you share this message with 10 of your friends, colleagues, and neighbors. Maybe your 10 are in your small group. Maybe it’s an old friend from college. There’s someone out there that needs to hear this message. Our emails are distributed to over 790 of our friends. If each of you shared this email with 10 friends we could reach nearly 8,000 people, 8,000 people who could make a difference, who could become a volunteer, or who could pray for those in need. The monumental problem of prison only gets better by spreading the word because most of us will never have the opportunity to go inside a prison’s walls to meet our future neighbors. Journalists aren’t getting the full picture; documentaries are heavily edited and screened. Each week or so we try and share with you a positive story of hope and change in a thousand words or less. Help us share these stories. You can be part of the change, part of the solution.
 
Thanks for reading. It makes a difference.
 
God bless.
 
Spencer

People always ask, "What's it like to teach in prison?"

Teaching can be scary.

You stand in front of a room, everyone looking at you, waiting for you to speak. They expect you to be knowledgeable, to not say “umm” too many times, and to make their time worthwhile. Further adding to the difficulty, teachers often spend more time actually preparing for the lesson than they do teaching the lesson, thus consuming a massive amount of personal time. You spend hours and hours prepping for a lesson, hoping and praying that your students won’t fall asleep and will actually comprehend what it is you’re trying to say. Sometimes the lecture makes sense in your head but doesn’t translate to the classroom. Since I’ve become a teacher myself, I often wish I could go back and thank (and apologize to!) all my teachers.
 
I drift into a sort of dream state when I prepare my horticulture lectures. I experience these creative flashes and have invisible conversations with my students, imagining what questions it is they will ask and what material I need to have prepared to answer them appropriately. I get super excited about what I am going to share and often have trouble sleeping before a lecture, my mind is constantly spinning, rehearsing what I will say. I show up for class and click through my PowerPoint slides and sometimes I arrive at a slide and gulp. I realize that I sure had a lot of courage adding a quote or story to the lecture when I was making it, but now that I’m in front of all these students, people who I know quite intimately because I’ve been teaching them for three years, I’m not so sure that I have the guts to share what it is I intended to share. Making a PowerPoint slide about forgiveness or reconciliation from the comfort of your office is a whole lot easier than standing in front of a room and telling people about what it means to forgive someone who has done you wrong.

Take for example a recent horticulture lecture at Burruss Correctional Training Center. I spoke for about 30 minutes on the latest horticultural studies and then arrived at a slide that simply said “Hope.” That dreaded gulp arrived. I had prepared this lecture several weeks before and now the time had come to speak. I wanted to click skip; I was afraid to share this story out loud. God told me to go ahead and tell them what was on my heart, so I did. As I looked out at the students, I saw eager faces; they wanted to know why “Hope” was written in bold letters. These are men aged 17-69 serving time in prison - hope has a whole different meaning for them than it does for us in the “free world.” I began speaking, letting God guide my words.  
 
I told the students that I have historically hated New Year’s Eve. It’s my least favorite holiday: it’s cold, expensive, too crowded, and requires that I stay up late. This year, I attended a wedding on New Year’s Eve. I was grumpy all day before the wedding because I didn’t want to go and I was dreading the evening. I worked myself into a state of misery, telling myself over and over just how horrible the night would be. And then I put on my tuxedo and went to the wedding and guess what – I had a great time! Everything went well! I had fun! I caught up with old friends, I danced, I ate some delicious prime rib! It was everything I didn’t expect it to be.
 
As I told them this story, the students looked at me quizzically and I could tell they were wondering where this was going. I finished by saying, “Look, what I’m trying to say is that nobody knows how your story will end. That chapter has not been written yet. No matter what has happened to you in the past, no matter how things have gone for you before, no one can tell you how it will end. No one has written the story you will write, so, write it. I hope that in this new year, we all move forward with hope, that we write our own endings.”
 
I looked out into their faces. I saw hope. I saw them nod along; I saw them smile. I saw that the message had resonated with them.

These students have endured, and continue to endure, horrible traumas. They are victims of a broken system. They are largely forgotten, confined behind walls and surrounded by razor wire. When they aren’t taken outside for recreation or are served six pieces of white bread and an apple for lunch, they can’t complain because there’s no one to listen. Many of them have been dealt a deck of cards that most of us simply couldn’t imagine. They are the have-not’s, and because they have not, they act in accordance. Many of them take, they steal, they rob others of joy and peace.
 
There’s really only one way to help them and that is to serve them. We must show up in our prisons and jails and minister to those in need. We must pray for correctional staff. We must pray for inmates. We must pray for our nation.
 
I know serving in prison isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But you don’t know until you try, and friends, I hope that you will at least give it a try. Every week when I teach, I learn more from my students than I could ever teach them. What more can you possibly ask for as a teacher? The students value our time together because I am one of the few people that they interact with who is there to help and heal, not to ensure that they remain confined behind bars. They love that I incorporate scripture into our lessons, like how when I teach about honey I mention all these Biblical references to wild honey. They show up for each class with smiles on their faces because they know they’re going to be let out of their cramped cells and will be learning about plant cells instead. They nearly leap for joy on days when we visit the garden and sit in the sunshine and pull weeds (imagine – pulling weeds is fun!). They aren’t checking their phones or surfing the internet on their laptops like most college students when I talk (in fact, they don’t have phones or laptops). Instead, they’re diligently taking notes and asking questions. Life’s not perfect, but on days when I have something interesting to teach, our class time is nearly as perfect as I’ve ever seen life be. A peacefulness descends on the classroom and words like “inmate” and “free person” disappear. Bars and chains melt away, and we become one class. It sounds hokey/hippie-dippy, but it’s true. Ask any of our volunteers. When I go to thank them for serving those in need, they tell me to hush and thank me instead. “You don’t know how much of a joy and honor it is to serve. No, it’s me that should be thanking you.”

The coolest thing is you can witness it for yourself. You can see what I’m talking about. Come visit a prison with me. Come visit our students. We’re actively involved at two facilities in the Atlanta area – the Atlanta Transitional Center (ATC) and the Metro Women’s Transitional Center (MTC). If you’re interested, you can tag along with me for dinner and horticulture at the ATC every other Tuesday from 7-9 PM and painting and bible study at the MTC every Friday from 1-3 PM.
 
Just email me and I’ll send you our schedule. I’ll send you parking and arrival instructions. Then, you show up with me and together, we serve. It’s that easy.
 
I hope to see you in a nearby prison soon. Until then, have a blessed day.
 
Spencer

What Causes Crime? Observations from working inside prison

We're often asked, what causes crime?

As you might have noticed, politicians on the campaign trail have “crime” on their minds. Republicans and Democrats alike tell voters that they have the solution, that they alone can make our streets safe again. Crime rates are falling nationwide but according to polling, Americans still believe crime is on the rise. Perceptions matter and the reality is clear – people don’t feel safe.
 
Part of HeartBound’s mission is to break generational cycles of crime and incarceration. After a conversation with a mother whose son is about to be sent to a state prison, I thought about what “generational cycles” meant. In an attempt to learn more, I started researching what causes crime. I’ve long suspected that a lot of people are in prison because they’re poor, yet research shows that crime is not caused by poverty. In one study published in 2023, people that won the lottery in Sweden did not go on to commit fewer crimes (see the full study for yourself here). Lottery winners receive an influx of cash, instantly lifting them out of poverty and into higher stratospheres of wealth and prestige, giving them access to resources that poorer people lack. According to the prevailing and predominant perception that poverty causes crime, these newfound gains in wealth should have prevented crime and incarceration – but they didn’t. Data shows that “randomly increasing a person’s income does not reduce their crime rate.”

So, what’s happening here? What’s causing crime?

Turns out the so-called experts simply don’t know. Some studies believe up to 45% of criminal behavior may be influenced by heritability/genetics. The FBI postulates that other factors have an outsized influence – population density, climate, effective strength of law enforcement, crime reporting practices of the citizens. More policing and more incarceration does not reduce crime; Dr. Goff, a professor at Yale University writes, “if throwing money at police and prisons made us safer, we would probably already be the safest country in the history of the world."
 
Every study I read has a different theory to explain crime. If none of them can agree, what is true? From observations I’ve made while ministering in prison, I believe that crime is largely driven by culture, by a lack of hope, by despair (after all, despair is the absence of hope). If you grow up in a neighborhood where the best jobs are at the local retail box-store and your streets and sidewalks are overflowing with trash and littered with drug paraphernalia, it’s harder to dream of a better life. If the only artwork you ever see is graffiti and the only gardens you ever visit are overgrown clay-stained parks, you gradually adopt a mentality that life and society have left you behind, that you have been abandoned to your own means, that a government by and for the people is for other people, and that your wellbeing matters less than that of people of means. It certainly doesn’t help that politicians and academics tell people that it’s not their fault and remind them that they are victims of an “oppressive” or inherently racist system. Such rhetoric does nothing to better anyone’s life and simply makes one side feel guilty and the other side feel helpless. America is the “land of opportunity,” but if you read the news, scroll social media, or listen to a debate, scientists and politicians have ditched the opportunity rhetoric and replaced it with “oppression.”

The victim rhetoric being preached today stirs division, dehumanizing the “others” and leaving young children bitter and cynical. In turn, they are more easily influenced by the aura and perceived “glory” of local gangs. Music and movies glorify “gang-life” and “getting paid,” further driving impressionable young minds towards crime. I meet a lot of young men who are in prison for stealing cars. You know why they steal cars? It’s not to sell them, it’s not to use them to commit robberies or other crimes, most of these young men take them for joyrides that they broadcast on live on Instagram. Kids are going to prison because they want to “show off for the ‘Gram.” It’s heartbreaking. The local gang has replaced the nuclear family that is psychologically, physically, economically, and emotionally fundamental to America’s greatness.
 
What to do then? How do you fix a broken culture? The answer, I believe, is to immerse yourself in the culture, to go to the very people that this broken culture is destroying and leading to chains. After all, isn’t that what Jesus did? 
 
Nothing is going to get better by sitting idly and wringing our hands. We have to go into communities and work to make a difference. We have to bridge divides, promote hope, and show that Christians still care about our neighbors. We have to live out Christian values, remember those in prison, and love one another. We have to help guide people to morality, to physically and spiritually demonstrate that they are not forgotten, that we are not afraid to serve on the front battlelines of good vs. evil. Every person we send to prison is a reflection of our own society’s educational, emotional, and spiritual failures. In Georgia, we are losing the battle – the State of Georgia incarcerates more of its population per-capita than any other nation in the world – that includes places like Russia and Iran, places led by tyrannical autocrats who are proudly anti-Christian. Georgia’s state motto is “Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation,” but where’s the wisdom, justice, or moderation with 451,000 Georgia residents behind bars or under community supervision?

As Zack Stanton writes, “America isn’t simply a story of bad things that have happened; it’s the story of people trying to make things better." Let us make things better – let us flood into our prisons, sharing goodness and light and hope. Let us pray for our neighbor, for our country, for the homeless and the destitute. Let us devote our time, energy, and resources to causes that matter and have an immediate and measurable impact on peoples’ lives.
 
We’re broken beings, we have been since the fall of Eden. Henry Miller wrote upon turning 80, “I have accepted the fact, hard as it may be, that human beings are inclined to behave in a way that would make animals blush. The ironic, the tragic thing is that we often behave in ignoble fashion from what we consider the highest motives. The animal makes no excuse for killing his prey; the human animal, on the other hand, can invoke God’s blessing when massacring his fellow men. He forgets that God is not on his side but at his side.”

With gratitude,
 
Spencer

"It's like eating oatmeal, it's just the right thing to do."

One thing I’ve learned about prison ministry is that you’re going to meet a whole cast of characters.

One of those characters is a man I’ve known since I was little - Burl Cain. His name perfectly encapsulates his stature and character. Burl is to no surprise - a burly man, white-haired and jovial with a Southern accent thick as molasses. He possesses the sort of wisdom they don’t teach in school, the kind only bestowed on those who grew up listening to their elders talk on the porch. Burl is always firing off these little quips – my mom, Andrea, calls them “Burlisms” - that make you nod your head and mutter to yourself, “Yup, he’s right”. One of my favorite sayings of Burl’s is “It’s like eating oatmeal, it’s just the right thing to do.” He’s a man of common sense and in today’s world, common sense is worth its weight in gold. Burl is now the Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, a job that puts him in charge of the welfare and rehabilitation of tens of thousands of men and women. Burl understands that those closest to the problem are also those closest to the solution; when he was warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, he hired a former inmate at Angola to oversee the prison’s programs. Tell me, who could better understand what inmates need to be better individuals than a former inmate? It’s simple, and like oatmeal, just the right thing to do.
 
When I first began working at HeartBound, I went through our onboarding training and kept noting processes that we could optimize, digitize, and expedite. I was finishing up graduate school and all around me, students and professors were “hacking” their way to better efficiency. HeartBound writes personalized thank you letters to donors, I noted that we could save time by having them automated by an email service. To me, a mid-20-something born and raised in the internet era, our operations were outdated and less than efficient. I asked the outgoing program director why we physically mailed books to children that participated in our Little Readers program. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know, because we always have.” Behold! I’d found another process that we could make more efficient – we could send digital copies instead, saving on postage and the time spent for books to ship. I’m sure my business professors would have been delighted that I was using my education to increase our organizational productivity.
 
I shared my strategies with Andrea…and she unapologetically declined them. I was incredulous. Surely she was saying no because she was “old-fashioned”. When and if I ever became the boss, I thought, I would set things on a more efficient path.

Well, I was wrong (and yes, Andrea smiled when she read this confession). As Burl Cain says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And not only were HeartBound’s processes not broken, but turns out, they had tremendous benefits for the people we serve. Take for example the practice of physically mailing books to children in the Little Readers program. A new meta-study with over 470,000 participants shows that “the number of books in a child’s household is positively correlated with reading test scores.”[1] To many of you, that might seem like common sense. I know that given my familial background and my family’s resources, I was surrounded by books as a child and I’ve always been a confident reader. However, the most fascinating part of this meta-study is that in households with physical copies of books – not kindles or tablets or other forms of digital reading – traditional print reading leads to “medium to strong gains in reading comprehension.”
 
Why? Digital print media typically contains shorter length, faster-paced stimuli; many digital print materials are also of “lower linguistic quality” according to the researchers. For primary and middle school students, researchers found a “significant negative relationship between leisure digital reading and reading comprehension.” Negative!
 
Today, less than half of Americans adults read at least one book a year for pleasure, whether in print or digitally. From 2012 to 2022, only 37.8% of American adults read a short story or novel at least once a year, a decline of 17%. After reading this study, I’m struck by the thought that reading in America is broken, but our Little Readers program sure isn’t. We’re still putting physical books in the hands of children across Georgia, Tennessee, and beyond. In fact, last year, we sent out over 1,500 books, 1,500 video recordings, and 1,500 children’s Bibles to kids so that they could read and bond with their incarcerated loved one. Not only are we increasing book access in homes impacted by incarceration and addiction, but we are giving children access to God’s story through Bibles and correspondence Bible study courses.
 
We have a goal this year to expand our Little Readers program to another surrounding state, be it Florida, Alabama, or South Carolina. Our feedback suggests that this program works – children read their Little Readers books nearly ten times a week on average. Another goal is to send out 2,000 Little Readers packets this year – that’s 2,000 books and 2,000 children’s Bibles. To accomplish these ambitious goals, we need your help. Each book costs $3-$5 on average and each Little Readers packet costs us $15.31. If you’d like to make a gift to support the Little Readers program, please visit www.givebutter.com/HeartBound. If you or your church/organization would like to organize a children’s book drive with new or gently worn books, we can donate them to Little Readers carts in prison visitation rooms across Georgia and Mississippi. Every book in a child’s hands is a step in the right direction towards increasing reading comprehension and breaking generational cycles of low literacy, crime, and incarceration.
 
Reading might be broken, but we can fix it. Like Burl says, “It’s like eating oatmeal, it’s just the right thing to do.”


Spencer Shelton

How Incarcerated Teens Learn Resilience

There’s a good article in a 2016 issue of The Atlantic titled, “How Kids Learn Resilience,” by Paul Tough (the irony!). Mr. Tough discusses the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on adolescent development. Not surprisingly, children who experience numerous ACEs tend to perform poorly in school, suffer from a myriad of health issues, and are more likely to be incarcerated later in life.
 
The entire article takes about 25 minutes to read, but here’s the main point. Researchers have identified four key beliefs that, when embraced by students, seem to contribute most significantly to their tendency to persevere in the classroom:
 

  1. I belong in this academic community.

  2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.

  3. I can succeed at this.

  4. This work has value for me.

 
Burruss Correctional Training Center recently held a graduation ceremony for horticulture, welding, and GED students; Grace and I were able to attend. The GED salutatorian, Teyric (who is also a horticulture student), is 17 years old. He is a skinny, shy, intelligent, African American kid who minds his own business and does his assignments dutifully. For the 100 Things I Know assignment, he wrote “100. I know I have a good horticulture teacher who cares about me.” Safe to say he got an A on that assignment.
 
Teyric’s mother was able to attend the graduation ceremony. This is what Teyric said during his speech, in front of his peers, his teachers, and his mother.
 
“Growing up, the only reason teachers knew my name was because they had to mark me absent. Change doesn’t happen in a day, a month, or even a year, but you have to start somewhere. We have the ability to be lawyers, entrepreneurs, activists, business owners. Failure is acceptable, but quitting is never an option. To all my teachers, thank you for seeing the good in us that we sometimes don’t see in ourselves.”
 
We don’t know Teyric’s full story, but I can guarantee you he’s experienced his share of Adverse Childhood Experiences; 40-60% of incarcerated people in America have experienced a traumatic brain injury in their lives. For the general population, that figure is only 9%. The scars I see on the people we minister to are not always from criminal behavior; they’re oftentimes from childhood. We can’t change what happened in the past, but we can give someone who is incarcerated, who is living out their lowest moment, a chance to have a better future which will, in turn, lead to better futures for all of us.
 
It starts with purposeful programs led by dynamic instructors, people like Fred Eason, Omar Howard, Grace Hall, and John Richardson. People who bring a Christ-focused curriculum to the classroom each week and show students that they belong, that they can work hard, that they will succeed, that their work has value.
 
These instructors need your support – your prayers and your financial gifts. Chaplain John mentors about 180 youth inside and outside prison each week, and Chaplain Omar serves the entire population at the Atlanta Transitional Center. Grace has sent out literacy packages to over 1,000 Little Readers children this year. Fred meets with juvenile and adult art students every Thursday, patiently teaching them how to paint and overcome the mental, physical, and emotional pains of incarceration. I teach young men the wonders of nature, the beauty given to us by the Great Creator.
 
With your help, we’re making a difference; you can hear it in Teyric’s words and others. One horticulture student recently wrote this poem:
 
“Raised by my mother my father was a jail bird
My gut told me I wasn’t going to fall behind these walls I feel for it
Put my fear in the Lord He will correct your ways
Another day I wake up make my bed all I’m doing is flipping another page
We’re 17 they got us like gorillas and lions locked inside one big cage
Fighting for position or who’s better we eating all the same trays
Wake up put the same clothes on even on the same time frame
We’re just like plants some grow some don’t
It's up to you if you let the devil take you I know I won’t.”
 
It has been said that people don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care. And friends, our teachers, staff, and volunteers at HeartBound Ministries, we care. And we thank YOU for caring too.
 
Please consider supporting our programs by making a donation at www.givebutter.com/HeartBound. Nearly 70% of our donations come from individuals just like you.  Ministry thrives on your generosity.
 
Thank you and God bless,
 
Spencer Shelton

"Work hard and stay out of prison."

Three peculiar things happened this Wednesday. 

1.    HeartBound was able to bring 4 former inmates back to Burruss Correctional Training Center to serve a Thanksgiving feast to 56 incarcerated men and boys. 

2.    A Muslim student asked me if he could work with HeartBound when he is released. 

3.    Zachary, one of the volunteers that went to Burruss today, wasn’t recognized by the staff - despite having been incarcerated at Burruss for nearly three years. 

Reflecting on these moments, I’m struck with the following thoughts. 

1.    How great is our God that He would bless this ministry so abundantly, that we not only have the resources to provide food to 56 incarcerated men, but that our ministry has built enough credibility with the Department of Corrections for them to allow us to bring back former inmates to share their testimony at the same facility that locked them up. 

2.    God is on the move in our ministry. Even the Muslims want to get involved because they recognize that what we have is real. 

3.    Zachary went unnoticed by his former guards because when he was incarcerated, they didn’t see him as a person, rather, they saw him as an inmate. 

I’d like to elaborate on that third point. 

Zachary was massively apprehensive about his first return visit to prison, and who could blame him? As one returned citizen, Derrick, puts it, “post prison trauma” is real. Zachary had spent some of his formative years at Burruss, serving time for a crime that he committed in his youth. He had earned his GED at Burruss, taken college classes, gone through mentoring with HeartBound chaplains Omar and John. When he walked through the door at Burruss as a free man today, the guard wanded Zachary down and said with a smile, “Welcome to Burruss, work hard and stay out of prison.” I chuckled; Zach was stone-faced. As soon as we cleared security, he told me that the same guard smiling at him used to treat him quite unkindly. 

As we continued through the facility, none of the staff recognized Zach. These are people who saw him nearly every day for three years. These are people who were responsible for counseling him, making sure he received adequate healthcare, ensuring he hadn’t escaped! And not one of them so much as glanced twice at him!

 

How is this possible?

All too often, incarcerated people go unseen, even by those in charge of keeping them. And that’s unfortunate because you have to see someone to meet their needs. We saw Zach while he was in prison, and we poured into him. After prison, we helped Zach with budgeting, housing, mentoring, and more. And now Zach is giving back. And we couldn’t be happier.

This Thanksgiving and holiday season, my prayer is that we will see each other as God’s beautiful creations. Let’s commit to loving the unlovable, seeing the unseen, and restoring the broken. 

Have a blessed Thanksgiving and know that we are grateful for you. 

Spencer

“Thank you for talking with me. I feel very happy. I haven’t felt that here.”

While leading a Project A.R.T. class at Rockdale RYDC, I met a boy called “Lee.” He was very reserved and quiet, keeping to himself as the other guys in my program engaged with each other easily. He seemed very alone, so I decided to sit with him to share markers and continue drawing. I asked about his project; he kept replying with one word answers and gestures.
 
As I checked in with the other boys’ progress, I kept returning to Lee, trying to make conversation, but still no luck. When I took a closer look at his drawing, I realized he had written his name in Korean with the English translation below it. I asked him if he was Korean, and he nodded yes. When I asked him what the other Korean writing on his paper meant, he responded with broken, simple English. I asked if English wasn’t his first language, and he said slowly, “No one talks to me here because I am hard to understand. So, I don’t talk at all.”
 
My heart shattered. As we continued drawing, I continued to ask him about parts of his project, the various Korean phrases he included, and even about his life. He shared with me how he misses his family, his church, and his Korean community at home. Despite his struggles communicating with me, I kept listening to Lee. As we neared the end of our program time, I learned that Lee was a believer but struggled to feel God’s love while incarcerated. I took a moment to pray with him, speaking in slow and simple sentences so that he could understand my English better.
 
As I went back to the front of the room to close out the program, I looked back to see Lee sitting up straight with a smile on his face. Later, as Lee walked out, he said “Thank you for talking with me. I feel very happy. I haven’t felt that here.”
 
My favorite part of serving in correctional facilities is how different each experience is. Sharing Christ’s love with Lee meant simply listening to him.  Despite language and cultural barriers, we shared a common language:  prayer. Because of your support, we got to share Christ’s love with Lee during our Project A.R.T. program at Rockdale RYDC. THANK YOU for making that possible.  Please pray for Lee and the other boys at Rockdale Regional Youth Detention Center.
 
We hope to see you at Songs in the Night on November 30th so you can hear more stories, stories just like Lee’s. Until then, have a blessed day.
 
Grace Hall

How Incarcerated Teens Learn Resilience

While leading a Project A.R.T. class at Rockdale RYDC, I met a boy called “Lee.” He was very reserved and quiet, keeping to himself as the other guys in my program engaged with each other easily. He seemed very alone, so I decided to sit with him to share markers and continue drawing. I asked about his project; he kept replying with one word answers and gestures.
 
As I checked in with the other boys’ progress, I kept returning to Lee, trying to make conversation, but still no luck. When I took a closer look at his drawing, I realized he had written his name in Korean with the English translation below it. I asked him if he was Korean, and he nodded yes. When I asked him what the other Korean writing on his paper meant, he responded with broken, simple English. I asked if English wasn’t his first language, and he said slowly, “No one talks to me here because I am hard to understand. So, I don’t talk at all.”
 
My heart shattered. As we continued drawing, I continued to ask him about parts of his project, the various Korean phrases he included, and even about his life. He shared with me how he misses his family, his church, and his Korean community at home. Despite his struggles communicating with me, I kept listening to Lee. As we neared the end of our program time, I learned that Lee was a believer but struggled to feel God’s love while incarcerated. I took a moment to pray with him, speaking in slow and simple sentences so that he could understand my English better.
 
As I went back to the front of the room to close out the program, I looked back to see Lee sitting up straight with a smile on his face. Later, as Lee walked out, he said “Thank you for talking with me. I feel very happy. I haven’t felt that here.”
 
My favorite part of serving in correctional facilities is how different each experience is. Sharing Christ’s love with Lee meant simply listening to him.  Despite language and cultural barriers, we shared a common language:  prayer. Because of your support, we got to share Christ’s love with Lee during our Project A.R.T. program at Rockdale RYDC. THANK YOU for making that possible.  Please pray for Lee and the other boys at Rockdale Regional Youth Detention Center.
 
Grace Hall

"Jesus gave me this book to read to you today."

Each Little Readers packet costs $15.10, which includes materials, labor, and shipping expenses. If you would like to sponsor a Little Readers packet for a family, you can do so at https://givebutter.com/HBMLittleReaders
 
Here’s a short story about Ash and how HeartBound’s Little Readers is changing lives. 
 
“Ash” is the mother of two young boys; she is currently pregnant with her first girl. Ash is currently incarcerated at Helms Facility in South Atlanta, the only correctional facility in the state that provides care for incarcerated pregnant women. Ash will give birth soon, shortly after her little girl will be given to a designated caregiver. Ash will then be sent to another state prison to finish out her sentence. 
 
HeartBound regularly hosts Little Readers recordings for the expectant mothers at Helms. Some of the women read to their older children along with the baby they are expecting, while others are reading to their soon-to-be child for the very first time. 
 
Ash was very excited to sit down and record for her children. Oftentimes, participants are nervous, unsure of how to start their videos or how to address their children. Many have never read to their children before. As I demonstrated different ways to start the video, she nodded enthusiastically and as soon as I hit record, her face lit up in a smile. As she began to read, her smile grew even wider. She was radiant.
 
After saying hello, Ash said “Jesus gave me this book to read to you today! Go grab the book He gave you too so we can read it together!” Her smile never faded as she continued to read. The book she selected was about a small child waiting while his younger sibling is being born, a story that she chose because her sons will closely relate to the character. 
 
Ash finished her recording and her smile didn’t fade. We talked about her kids and how much the recording and book would mean to them. We talked about how hard it is for Ash to be the mother they need while incarcerated. We talked about her gratitude for people like you, who support HeartBound Ministries so that we can offer our Little Readers program to Ash and her family. As we have shared in a previous newsletter, sharing Christ’s love looks different every time we step into a correctional facility. On that day in Helms with Ash, sharing Christ’s love looked like a book that spoke directly to her family’s current situation as they anticipate the arrival of a new baby sister.
 
Each Little Readers packet costs $15.10, which includes materials, labor, and shipping expenses. If you would like to sponsor a Little Readers packet for a family like Ash’s, you can do so at https://givebutter.com/HBMLittleReaders.
 
With gratitude,
 
Grace Hall

Dear Old Me, H. Wrote...

“Dear Old Me,” H. said. I was confused, the assignment was supposed to be a poem. It appeared that this student, H., had mixed up the assignment with an old one where the class wrote letters of wisdom to their younger selves. I wanted to stop him; he was supposed to be reading a poem he wrote to the class, but I let him continue. I think God was telling me to shut up and listen.

“Dear Old Me,” he began. Afterwards, I asked for a copy of his speech, which is below.
 
I know you went through a lot of pain and been through a lot a drama as a little kid feeling like your mother hated you because you’re not perfect and feeling like your daddy don’t want you trying to get even with your mom because of what she put him through so growing up was tough. Jumping in the streets looking for love and will do anything for it but came out broken every time you gave your heart out. You tried with gangs, family, women, and the streets itself so you proved your loyalty by shooting at others, robbing people, breaking in cars and houses. As you went deeper in the streets the deeper the scars was. It took loved ones, homes away. Then brought lonely nights sleeping outside family don’t want you around and the people who was next to you on the block doing or going to jail being a lifer they’ll never see the outside. Being close to death is a scary moment and you been close plenty of times watching your friends die next to you then ask God why he didn’t take your life it was for you to open your eyes and change your life style. There’s a reason the Lord kept you alive even when you tried to take your own life you got a future ahead a son to raise into a man and a family to help stand when they fall you a strong soldier you been through it all thug life was a gamble. I want you to use the pain as your strength and change lives with your story with your heart also your mind. You can be the leader you have always been. You was a convict, now you a convert in your mind.
 
You have beautiful scars.
 
Change for the better.
 
H. was one of those students who can be easy to give up on. He is loud, abrasive, can’t sit still, and is always looking for attention. But I have a newfound respect for him; I truly underestimated H. The courage it took for him to read this letter in front of his peers was incredible.
 
God can work with beautiful scars.
 
With thanks,
 
 
Spencer

What a Prison Baptism Looks Like

God uses the smallest of things to help us reach incarcerated youth. Here’s a story from Chaplain John about how a promise of cake and lemonade helped bring young men to baptism at Rockdale RYDC.

 
12 were baptized in Rockdale RYDC recently - what a blessing to be a part of that! That made 20 baptisms in the last 60 days (and in a facility that holds 52 max). 40%. Can you say revival? God is saying something.
 
Those baptized ranged in age from 14 to 16. Some had been baptized before (don't tell my bishop!). Rules were set aside for the experience of being born again. Scandalous!
 
Striking to me was the volition. Some are baptized as infants. Some were baptized around 12 under the inescapable peer pressure of the proverbial altar call and an unending chorus of ‘Just As I Am.’ These kids chose to be baptized. God called them. They said yes. I'm vain enough to wish I had something to do with it. Nothing.
 
One kid shook in fear. Quietly he said, “I don't know how to swim.” Talk about peer pressure. Admitting you are scared of 24 inches of water is embarrassing. Didn't stop the boy from being real. I made him look me in the eyes. Just as quietly I said, “You got this. I'm not going to let anything happen to you.” This particular kid was no stranger to gunfire and a life at risk. He chose to die last Tuesday. He chose.
 
One 16 year old was called to court at the exact time he was called to baptism. He was crushed. He was released yesterday. He’s already texted me about putting together a baptism on the outside. It wasn't an act. Not for show.
 
A couple of days after this baptism, some of the newly baptized came to me and said, “You know pastor, some got baptized because there was cake and lemonade after.” To their surprise I said, “So what? They said they wanted to be baptized. I can't know their hearts any more than I can know yours. I'm not their judge. That's between them and God.”
 
Cake and lemonade? God uses the smallest of things. I read somewhere about a mustard seed. Perhaps cake and lemonade were the draw. The faces of all those who were plunged under the cold water of baptism signifying the death of the old self emerged with the expression "I'm born again." I can't know for sure. God does. And He is the only one worthy to judge in this case. To Him be the thanks. To Him be the glory.
 
In fellowship,
 
Pastor John Richardson
Chaplain – HeartBound Ministries

Answering "Why I'm on the Planet" Type Questions

Have you ever asked someone to pray for you?

I met with one of our Malachi Dads instructors, Dan Lane, recently. He had just completed a 12-week Malachi Dads course at Spalding County Correctional Institute.  I wanted to meet to get feedback and say thanks.
 
Dan was beaming, “Spencer, you’ll never believe what happened during last night’s class.” I sat up straight in my chair. “The men asked me to teach them how to pray.”
 
For years, Dan’s been reading the same prayer every morning. He happened to have copies on him that day while he was teaching. He pulled out the paper and gave it to the men. He talked them through prayer, what it means, why we do it, how we can do it. He spoke of the importance of praying for one’s family each morning. “If my child can come to me and ask me to pray for them and I can honestly reply, ‘My child, I already have,’ how profound is that?” I couldn’t agree more, Dan.
 
Malachi Dads is teaching men to train up their sons and daughters to be godly men and women. Dan emphasizes that men need to teach their daughters how to value themselves, how to build self-worth and confidence in an age of Instagram and mass insecurity. Children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to abuse drugs, be arrested, miss school, and be subjected to physical and sexual violence and predation. I recently read an interview of a man released from prison after two years:  “It’s not us that suffer, it’s our families on the outside. And they’re the innocent ones.” Dan is molding men to be servants of God, stewards of their gifts, protectors of their families. We owe Dan a debt of gratitude.
 
I asked Dan what it was like to teach, what the experience meant to him. He paused, adjusted his glasses, and looked me in the eyes. “This class fulfilled ‘why I’m on the planet type questions’ for me. I never see myself not doing this. You can see a softening in these men over the 12 weeks. A spark is lit inside them.”
 
As Dan so wisely says, “God will let you go your way, which way do you want it to be?” Steeped in sin, miserable with the so-called “pleasures” of this world? Or do you want to live differently, have a purpose, find meaning and peace? These are the sorts of questions that one confronts when working with the incarcerated. These are the types of conversations that are changing the lives of people in the most desperate and desolate situations imaginable.
 
Dan, thank you. You are building God’s kingdom.

We need your support to help fund programs like Malachi Dads. These life-changing programs are surprisingly cheap – all we have to do is purchase books for each student. Dan didn’t charge us a cent for travel or his time.
 
To support HeartBound programming, please consider making a recurring monthly donation by visiting www.givebutter.com/HeartBound. A $10 monthly donation allows us to buy 12-books in a year, 12 books that have the potential to change 12 lives, 12 families. Together, we can help restore men and women to our communities as changed individuals. If one mother or father returns home from prison and changes their family for the better, then we have done our job. Thank you and have a blessed day.

Spencer

100 Things I've Learned from Prison

“I have received no immediate assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can.” - The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis



A few weeks ago, I read an interesting blog post titled, “100 Things I Know.” While most of the advice was not applicable to my life, I was left wondering, “What is it that I know?” I discussed the thought with our adult horticulture class the following Tuesday and realized, this would be an excellent activity for us to complete together. They were to report to next class with 100 things that they knew. When I informed the juvenile class of the assignment, I watched as their faces contorted with bewilderment – “100?!”, one kid exclaimed. “100”, I firmly replied.
 
It was my turn to be bewildered when I arrived for the next class – every single juvenile student had completed the assignment. Better yet, every single student was eager to present. I had underestimated them. I asked the boys to choose five items that they would like to share, then we would randomly call out three numbers between 1-100 and they would have to read out what they wrote for that number.
 
The assignment quickly went south. They wrote things like, “I know my name,” “I know my ABC’s,” “I know when my release date is.” Yes, they had completed the assignment, but they had not completed it well. I could see in their faces and in their writing just how low their self-confidence was. Despite the minor setback, I was encouraged that every student had indeed taken the time to write out 100 items. I collected their papers and headed home to enter their grades. That’s when things took a turn for the worse.
 
Every. Single. Boy wrote that they know how to use a gun. Every. Single. Child wrote about how they know how to fight. Make no mistake, these are not scary kids; many of them are tiny and some have been locked up since they were 12-13.
 
Reading their responses, I became angry. This is what our culture has produced. This is what our entertainment, our mass media, and gang-riddled neighborhoods have told them to be proud of. This, my friends, is evidence of a culture that is fundamentally broken.
 
There’s no amount of resources that you can pour into a system to fix a culture that is broken. You can build after-school programs, you can hire more school counselors, you can clean up parks and public housing projects, and all of that is great (and costs millions), but it cannot and will not fix a culture. These are boys that have been misguided by music, movies, men, and social media and are now paying the price for it – by spending their prime years in a 10x6’ prison cell. By the way, I know that their cells are 10x6’ because one child wrote for number 52, “I know my cell is 10x6 feet.” We are paying for this broken culture – some of these kids are fathers, and their children are the future. When these kids steal, shoot, and sneak around, they are often hurting innocent people like you and me. They are paying a price for their crimes, but we’re paying a price too. It’s not a zero-sum game.
 
As I sat grading, getting angrier and angrier, I came across one of our best student’s papers. He wrote, “I know that I will pass horticulture.” A smile returned to my face. Four lines down, he wrote, “I know my dad walked out on me.” My heart broke.
 
For one of my 100 things I know, I wrote, “Our children are, for nearly all of us, our only legacy.” I don’t have children, but by God’s grace, these incarcerated boys are a part of my legacy, of HeartBound’s legacy. And we need your help.
 
These young men are incarcerated at Burruss Correctional Training Center. It’s about an hour and fifteen minutes south of Atlanta. We currently offer horticulture classes on Tuesdays and art classes on Thursdays. Chaplains John and Omar typically minister to the young men on Wednesdays.
 
We need Godly men and women to help serve these young men at Burruss. We need to change the culture. We need volunteers willing to go in and teach. It can be in the mornings, daytime, or evenings, just not on weekends. It doesn’t matter what you teach – art, writing, dog training, whatever – every minute we spend with them makes a difference. The activity is secondary; what is most important is that they see, speak with, and learn from living, breathing examples of God’s love, “image bearers of God”, as scripture puts it.
 
If you do not have the time to serve, you can support our programming for these juveniles (as well as our programming for incarcerated 12-21 year-olds at various youth detention centers) by donating at www.givebutter.com/HeartBound. If you feel call to served, please schedule an introductory phone call with me by responding to this email. I’ll walk you through the volunteer certification process. We typically like to pair up volunteers in teams of 2-4. You can serve weekly, bi-weekly, monthly -  it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be an artist – we can supply you with paint by number kits or books for a Bible study. Any sort of program makes a difference.. These boys are desperate for genuine, caring human interaction. Ninety-five percent of them are coming back home, and we cannot afford to have them returned as hardened criminals. Our job as a ministry is to serve them and equip you to serve. I’ll escort you into the facility for your first few classes and from then on, you just check in with HeartBound whenever you need more supplies.
 
Hebrews 13:3 tells us that we are called to remember the prisoner. Every time we go into serve, we get more out of the experience than we put in. We want you to have that same experience. It’s truly a joy to serve these boys.
 
If you feel called to serve, please reach out. We need you. These boys need you.
 
Have a blessed day.
 
Spencer

Small Joys Behind Big Gates

“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16:11 ESV


I used to think that joy had to be found in the big moments of life. I expected to only find joy in achieving my long-term goals, checking a box on my bucket list, or even hitting a major life milestone such as graduating college or signing a lease on my first apartment.
 
Recently, the Lord has been revealing to me the joy of His presence. When Jesus is invited into our lives in both the big and small moments, joy can fill that space, no matter how simple or grand the space may be.
 
Before I walk into any correctional facility, I invite Jesus into the gates with me. During the check-in process, I find myself I silently praying for the moments that lie ahead. I pray that every person I encounter – guard and inmate alike, will feel loved and seen by Jesus whether they know Him or not.
 
What I’ve begun to realize is that those prayers invite the joy of God’s presence wherever He has me that day. I am blessed to have a front row seat to see how that joy transforms the small things. A children’s book becomes a vessel for an intimate connection with a parent and their child in a Little Readers recording, a sewing machine becomes a symbol of confidence for a woman in a quilting class, and a new pack of paint brushes becomes stress relief and peace for a juvenile girl in a Project A.R.T. class.
 
Without your generosity, a lot of these small things that bring huge joy would simply not be possible. God takes our simple moments of entering someone’s brokenness and transforms them into reflections of His love and care. When His presence invades a prison library or a youth detention center classroom, we see lives changed and hearts renewed. Thank you for bringing small joys to the dark places. May you feel God’s joy over you.
 
Grace Hall

Using Creative Writing to Heal Within Prison

Ana Ivey, our creative writing instructor at Coastal State Prison, shares a beautiful message for us.

***
The Enemy’s Lies or God’s Truths

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” 1 Corinthians 5:15

***

He held the pages of his story and said, “I am a total screw up.”

I was teaching my creative writing class at Coastal State Prison. We were discussing the concept of “false beliefs” in literature. False beliefs are lies main characters believe about themselves. They are often the result of unhealed pain. 

Can you relate? Fictional characters aren’t the only people who wrestle false beliefs. In our very real worlds, we recite our own scripts:

  • I’m not lovable.

  • I’m worthless.

  • I’m trapped.  

  • I’m stupid.

  • I have nothing to say.

To battle the lies, I turn to the truth in God’s word. In 2 Corinthians 5:15, the apostle Paul writes “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Paul’s message is for anyone in Christ: the Jew and the Gentile, the Greek and the Roman, the incarcerated and the free.

When Jesus begins a work in us, he’s renewing us from the inside out. 

It sounds a lot like Isaiah 43:19: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

God is all about digging us out of the muck and mire of our false beliefs and pouring His truth into our minds.

As I looked around my classroom that day, I wondered if all my students saw themselves as total screw ups. After all, they had been locked up for serious crimes: robbery, drug trafficking, child molestation, rape, and murder. Did they know Jesus had the power to redeem and restore them? To make them new?

I sensed the Holy Spirit nudging me to do an exercise with them. (You can do this, too.) I drew two columns on the board and labeled them “lies” and “truths.”

I asked the men to tell me things they believed about themselves. They said things like “too old,” “not smart enough,” “unlovable,” “unable.” I wrote them in the column labeled lies.

Under truths, I wrote the opposites: not too old, smart enough, worth loving, capable. I looked each of them in the eye and said, “These lies you believe, they’re lies from the enemy. They’re what he uses to hold your mind hostage. But these truths? They are God’s truths for you to set your mind free from the past and give you renewed hope for your future.”

Never confuse who you are — your identity — with what you’ve done, I told them. We’ve all screwed up, but that doesn’t make us total screw ups. It makes us humans in need of a Savior. 

I don’t know how the lesson resonated with the men. But I know how it affected me. It reminded me that God is doing a new thing in my life, leading me away from false beliefs and into His restorative truth. 

Dear Jesus: I believe You’re doing a new thing in my life. I reject the enemy’s lies about me and lean into Your truth. Help me see myself the way You see me — lovable and worthy. In Jesus’s Name, Amen. 


Ana

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