Largest Prison Chapel in U.S. Opens for Ministry

Russ Jones | Christian Press | Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Largest Prison Chapel in U.S. Opens for Ministry

May 12, 2010

EL DORADO, KAN -- It has been a long and sometimes arduous journey, but a new Spiritual Life Center at the El Dorado Correctional Facility (EDCF) in Kansas finally held its dedication and open house May 4.

For years, inmates met in empty classrooms or the inmate visitor's room, but now they have a state-of-the-art worship and learning facility.

An overflow crowd was present to celebrate the accomplishment. The 11,500 square foot center, which took nearly six years to complete and cost more than $1 million, features a 300-seat auditorium, multipurpose room, seven classrooms and two chaplains' offices. The facility is the largest prison chapel ever built in the United States.

Roger Werholtz, who is head of the Department of Corrections, sees this center as one key to bring life-changing correction to inmates. 

"What matters is that we find the key that can go out and touch that individual and give them a door to walk through to a different life, Werholtz said. "And that's what I think this place will do." 

While the physical structure itself is impressive, what is even more significant is the building process. None of the construction was paid for with taxpayer dollars. All of it was funded by donations and fundraising events.  At least 180 churches supported the campaign in one form or another. 

A group of inmates actually gave the first $500 of seed money to start the Spiritual Life Center project, and most of the work was done by inmates. Construction took a little over three years after the work began in October 2005. 

"This is truly an amazing facility," said prison warden Ray Roberts. "Central Kansas Prison Ministry has been tremendous to work with. They are salt-of-the-earth type of people." 

Lynn Everett McBride, who has served as executive director of Central Kansas Prison Ministry since November 1991, said the day has been a long time in coming. He says that God first gave him the vision for the Spiritual Life Center seven years ago. 

That vision carried him through multiple setbacks. Construction efforts stalled in October 2007 because of a prison break. Repair crews were needed to install additional security and new systems throughout the facility. A sluggish economy also added unforeseen challenges. 

"Well, we finally made it," McBride told the crowd. "Due to God's faithfulness and to your many generous contributions we are here today." 

Several speakers testified to how the center is already impacting the prison population. 

"We christened this place back on March 21 and we had 218 inmates in here," said Chaplin Chauncey Biby with the El Dorado State Prison. "We prayed over every chair, the sound equipment and even the musical instruments." 

Biby said that five inmates gave their lives to the Lord that day, demonstrating the significance of the new center. 

Kansas Lieutenant Governor Troy Findley was among the speakers at the open house and dedication. He thanked those who donated money so that the men inside the center could have a second chance to be honest and godly men. 

Wichita, Kan., architects Rachel Mondt and Tim Dudte designed the facility and were also present. 

"A lot of seeds have been sown creating a foundation, but it is just the beginning," said Mondt. "Personal faith kept everyone involved. This has been a project of endurance as they usually don't take this long." 

Jack Spears, 47, is one inmate who believes the facility will play a critical part in reduced recidivism and community restoration. Spears, who has been in prison for 22 years on first-degree murder charges, asked open house crowd a question that he would soon answer: "Do you think all this money was worth it?"

Spears then shared that he was lost when he first went to prison. For a long time, he believed he was in prison for murder, but Spears says it was actually for another reason. 

"I am here because I didn't have Jesus in my life," said Spears. "I think you're responsible for the way you think. Because you act the way you think, and it we can change people's lives from in here, they can go back to the communities and not be the problem anymore. They can be the solution." 

Oddly enough, some complained that the facility is too nice for inmates. Prison officials say victims often want punishment and a pleasant church building doesn't appear to provide such treatment for inmates like Spears.

"It was built with the idea that it would be here a hundred-plus years. It is hopefully filled with the presence of God and will open people's hearts and minds, "said Larry Crawford, vice president of Central Kansas Prison Ministry. 

The statistics support El Dorado's stated goals. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association reports that 68 percent of adult prisoners successfully reenter society if they become a Christian while incarcerated. McBride cites further statistics. "If a man attends at least 10 Bible studies during his incarceration he is 40% less likely to re-offend," he said.

Other states besides Kansas are looking to faith-based organizations to help rehabilitate inmates. Arizona is one of several states looking to another prison ministry, Prison Fellowship Ministries, to help keep more criminals from reoffending.

Prison Fellowship operates with similar goals as the Central Kansas Prison Ministry. Founded by Chuck Colson, who served seven months in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal, Prison Fellowship launched Out4Life in April 2008.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports Arizona has more than 144,000 men and women under correctional supervision. Ninety-five percent of these offenders will eventually be released back into neighborhoods, and two-thirds will be re-arrested within three years for a new crime or for violating the terms of their release. The goal of Out4Life is to tackle recidivism more effectively and help ex-prisoners successfully reintegrate into society. 

"It takes responsibility on the part of both the offender and the community to restore that relationship — especially the faith-based community," said David Lawson, senior vice-president of Prison Fellowship. 

"The government alone can't do the job. The church needs to expand its resources beyond Bible studies and engage the offenders with educators and business leaders who can mentor them and give them jobs when they are released." 

Mark Early, president of Prison Fellowship and former attorney general of Virginia, said, "Not only can we make Arizona a safer place to live, we can also help the state navigate these troubled fiscal waters. Perhaps most importantly, however, we will also see thousands of men and women break free of the cycle of crime and prison to become productive members of our society." 

Russ Jones is co-publisher of the award winning Christian Press Newspaper ( and CEO of BIG Picture Media Group, Inc., a boutique media firm located in Newton, Kansas. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri and St. Paul School of Theology. As a former NBC TV reporter he enjoys reporting where evangelical Christian faith and news of the day intersect. He is also president of the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers. Jones is also a freelance reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network.  He may be reached at [email protected]