Diane Ezzell describes herself as a “straight as an arrow” person who believes in rules and follows them. As she sometimes tells the men in her classes, she’s lived in a way that would keep her out of prison cells.
She had no intention of getting involved with prison ministry. It just wasn’t her calling.
But somehow, on a winter night in 1999, she found herself walking into one of North Carolina’s medium-security correctional facilities, committed to leading a Bible study for a dozen inmates waiting inside.
If she got through that first evening, she promised herself she wouldn’t need to return.
Before she knew it, those dreaded first few hours had turned into a lifelong commitment, enriching spirits on both sides of the prison walls.
Faith in Action
In North Carolina, nearly 39,000 inmates live in 70 prisons. More than 90 percent of them are male; most are serving time for drug possession, assault or larceny. In 2010, only 24 percent said they had finished high school.
Mark Hicks, a United Methodist minister in North Carolina, believes there’s a strong need for churches to be engaged with people behind bars. He directs Disciple Bible Outreach Ministries, a program that mobilizes volunteers like Diane Ezzell for ministry in prisons, jails and youth development centers.
Known as DBOM, it works to “transform lives in prisons and pews.”
Since beginning in a United Methodist church in North Carolina in the 1990s, the program has grown steadily and is now expanding nationally. More than 100 United Methodist congregations in North Carolina have been involved, and some correctional facilities have had as many as four Disciple Bible groups active at one time.
The Duke Endowment has supported the ministry as a way to expand church outreach and strengthen rural congregations. For inmates, the program provides support and comfort in a hostile place. For volunteers, it provides an opportunity to put faith in action.
For both groups, the program can be transformational.
Just look at Diane Ezzell.
‘The Least, the Lost, the Last’
For the past 12 years, Diane has led Disciple Bible classes for inmates at two correctional facilities in counties near her home. Her husband, Jim, participates, too.
But when the training invitation first came in the mail, Diane put it aside. “I really felt those inmates had been put in those places for some very good reasons,” she says. “I didn’t need to be a part of it.”
Jim had a good excuse, too. Disabled from health issues, he often suffers from chronic pain. “I just didn’t think I was physically up to doing it,” he says.
Now they look forward to each class.
On Mondays, they’re at Albemarle, a medium-security facility. On Tuesdays, they drive to Rowan. With 12 men in each group, they pray, read the Bible, and discuss questions about forgiveness and salvation.
“Within our faith,” Diane says, “so much love has been given to us freely. One of the callings that I believe every Christian should understand is that we are supposed to share that love with others, especially ‘the least, the lost, and the last.’ Those are nice words – but until you find out who those people are, you will truly never know how much they need to have that love shared with them.”
Although Jim and Diane say the men are always thanking them for coming, the blessings go both ways.
“I won’t get any rewards in heaven for doing this,” Diane says. “I’m getting them all right now.”
Robert R. Webb III
Director of Rural Church