LAFAYETTE — As a young husband and father, Russell Roseberry was hesitant to accept an invitation from the late Larry Gates to participate in prison ministry at the Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.
“I had been praying for specific direction, but I didn’t know if I wanted prison,” Roseberry said. “I had a wife and children.”
As the director of InnerFaith Prison Ministry recalls that moment some 25 years later, he is at peace, having long ago found a place within prison walls.
Curiosity convinced him to make his first trip with Gates into a prison. Being there confirmed for Roseberry that God wanted him to continue with that type of ministry.
What started as one Bible study at the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center has grown to an effort that has included thousands of volunteers lending support during the last quarter century.
The goal: to offer the word of God to inmates in prisons around the state and to tend to the needs of inmates’ families.
To accomplish those objectives in roughly 17 Louisiana facilities and in neighboring Mississippi and Texas, InnerFaith has instituted a number of programs, including parenting classes coordinated by Dustin Miller at the South Louisiana Correctional Center in Basile. Volunteers David Stroderd and Keith Tucker oversee the ministry at LPCC.
Kat Wilder leads a program that provides food boxes for inmates’ families. She routinely visits the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel twice a month for a service.
“The ladies that we befriend are a lot like us,” she said.
Along the way, as volunteers travel to facilities such as Dixon Correctional Institute and the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Roseberry and his peers meet inmates who face different paths in prison. Some are staring down life sentences. Others face considerably shorter sentences and the prospect of re-entering society.
“You have to speak to various people differently because you have to know what setting they are going back to,” Roseberry said. “Some of them are going back to a home setting, a community setting, a different lifestyle. Some of them are going back to 24/7 behind the prison walls.”
In all cases, one of InnerFaith’s concerns is caring for the children of the incarcerated. A Little Lambs outreach program is headed by Roseberry’s wife, Christine.
Children in Little Lambs receive guidance from mentors, help obtaining schoolbooks, birthday cards and a couple of gifts for Christmas.
“Sometimes through the children, you reach the parent,” Wilder said. “I notice that in my church, as well. We have a lot of programs sponsored toward children. Parents start off dropping their children to all of these youth programs. After they (parents) see their children grow, they say, ‘we want some of that.’ ”
In the case of food-box drives and the Little Lambs program, volunteers with InnerFaith are communicating with a child’s caretaker, which could be an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent or a foster-care provider.
“Everybody has a heart for a child and the inmates are so grateful for us tending to their families while they are away,” Wilder said. “Is everyone 100 percent saved or appreciative? Probably not. But I would say a very large percent is, especially when God is in control.”
While children are being cared for, Roseberry and many others aim to help prepare soon-to-be released inmates for the adjustment that comes with re-entering society.
For those who have become accustomed to the pace of prison life for years or decades, the change can be jarring.
“It’s a faster lifestyle,” Roseberry said. “Acceleration of activity has grown to the hilt. Inmates come out. Activity is not that fast behind prison walls. They come out to a fast-moving world.”
In some cases, current inmates receive counsel from someone who has already traveled the path from prison to freedom.
Hershey Batiste has been in prison three times during his 53 years. He now works with InnerFaith, hoping his words carry weight with young men.
“When I was going to prison, I wasn’t about Jesus,” Batiste said. “You can’t just talk about it and not be about it. Everybody knows the word, but not everybody follows the word. I let them (inmates) know straight out to let go of that life. There is no other way.”
Ultimately, Batiste said, it comes down to the choice of the individual.
Given that Louisiana has consistently ranked at the top or near the top in the nation in number of inmates per capita, Roseberry noted the need for InnerFaith and other similar groups is unlikely to subside any time soon.
“We have had teams tell us we have been instrumental in starting up a number of different ministries and outreaches, ”Roseberry said.
To help keep up with the need, InnerFaith periodically holds training classes called “Train the Trainer” to prepare volunteers for their entrance into prison ministry.
When Roseberry started in prison ministry, he was conducting one service and holding a separate full time job. Twelve years ago, he dedicated himself full time to the work in prisons.
“The Lord called me out of a Bible study and sent me to this,” Roseberry said. “The need of meeting humanity’s necessities hasn’t changed. That’s always the same. However, the sphere of outreach has become greater, which demands more volunteers and more people. Humanity is in need of many things.”