EFFINGHAM, S.C. (AP) — There are places where people think they’re likely to find God, but the Florence County Detention Center usually isn’t one of them.
The thick, white walls of the nearly soundproof building in central Florence County is home to the county’s dangerous criminals. The Spartan halls seem devoid of life, the doors which slam and lock behind those who enter, and the filtered light that streams into the recreation room, don’t seem to offer much hope for a better life, let alone a relationship with the Maker.
Yet for five men awaiting trial on charges ranging from armed robbery to murder, the detention center is where they found God.
Or maybe, where God found them.
In white-walled prison recreation room, each of the five men was baptized, dunked and dipped in the cleansing waters that Christians believe can figuratively, if not literally, wash away the stain of sins. All found the unusual ceremony — most prisons don’t come equipped with baptismal fonts — a fresh start on lives in need of same.
Twenty-five year-old Jason McCrea, who’s accused of shooting and killing a Lake City woman late last year, bubbled to the surface Monday with a big smile on his face. He is, he said, a changed man.
“Everyone has freewill and choice,” said 25-year-old McCrea. “That’s what God gives us. I have just been praying for today, for a second chance.”
Said 18-year-old Kahseem Davenport, who is awaiting trial for common law robbery and burglary, “Things that I see now, I wish I would have seen when I was younger, so it wouldn’t have led up to here. I get to wash away my sins, be reborn again, and live Christ.”
Religious supportive services are nothing new at the Florence County Detention Center. The staff there makes every effort to meet spiritual needs of the inmates, no matter what their religious beliefs are. All faiths are supported. Participation may be encouraged but it’s always voluntary.
The baptisms, however, are new.
They began two months ago after the Church of Christ in Bluefield, West Virginia donated a baptismal font the prison’s chaplain, Ira “Buddy” Rainwater. The portable tub, made by American Rehabilitation Ministries, is a monster, a giant water proof box big enough to hold a grown men and the water needed to cover him. It may have been donated, but it was not free. The shipping cost $875. The Men’s Bible Fellowship at South’s Finest Sporting Goods literally paid that freight.
Rainwater said it’s a great tool.
“These men and women we have baptized here have come out of a situation where they are a broken person,” Chaplain Rainwater said. “To a person with hope, I have seen them sit in that water and just weep. I can’t help but believe that their heart was right when they walked in, and they’ll be a better person when they come out.
Time will tell if Rainwater’s assessments are correct, but Monday afternoon the emotions are tangible as the ceremony begins.
The door to the recreation room opens with a creak and then a loud thud — a common prison sound — and the five men, all wearing green jump suits, quietly walk toward the front of the room where the baptismal font stands. The water in the font is slightly yellow, but it is a warm (the font has a heater) welcoming to make a new start.
White gowns are the traditional garb for baptisms. At the detention center, white jumpsuits fit the circumstances perfectly, a new tradition perhaps. The men are given a place to change, offered the sacrament, and a word of prayer led by Chaplain Rainwater.
Joseph Backus III, who’s facing multiple charges of armed robbery, is first in line. As he steps into to the water the room falls silent. Slowly he enters the font, places a piece of tissue over his nose, takes a deep breath, looks up briefly and under the gentle hands of Chaplain Rainwater is lowered into the depths. Into a . well, time will tell.
“Joseph, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit I baptize you.”
As Backus rises, the water rolls down his face. Rainwater says, “Go in your new life with Jesus Christ, walk with him.”
The sound of clapping echoes off the walls. Sunlight streams through the tiny windows near the ceiling.
Four more follow. All bob to the surface with happy expressions or excitement on their faces.
But are they really different? These men are charged with serious crimes. They’ve destroyed other lives, can they really change theirs? None of them have been convicted of anything yet, but can they really start again? Each answers that question with a resounding yes.
Terry Brown, at age 44, the senior baptize-ee at Monday’s ceremony and a sort of unofficial inmate/chaplain who helps minister and counsel some of his fellow inmates, said change really is possible.
“I was the type of kid . I used to have an attitude,” said Brown. “(Now) I see these young cats.I look at them and say ‘change your life, change your life.’ I believe I planted two seeds, and they are growing.”
Florence County Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Nunn, the department’s spokesman and no softy, said the center has plenty of reasons for offering religious services —including baptism. There’s ample evidence that jails with strong religious underpinnings have less violence and fewer problems than jails that don’t. Besides that, well, it just might work.
“(The prisoners who are baptized) may truly take this with them when they leave here,” Nunn said, “and not ever have to come back.”
Following the ceremony, the third at the detention center so far, Chaplain Rainwater tells each of the inmates how much he loves them, and it’s obvious he means it. Nunn said it may be one of the few occasions when these men hear real words of kindness.
It’s impossible to predict just what paths the men will take. Trials — actual trials and others no doubt — lie ahead. Some will make it and some, undoubtedly, will not.
That doesn’t matter to Rainwater who believes the men deserve hope and the chance for a new beginning.
“There are some consequences they have to pay for the choices that they made, but they can have their heart changed and start a new life,” Rainwater said.
It could even start in a prison gym.
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