Razor wire crowns the chain link fences surrounding Wrightsville Prison – a light to medium security facility that sits about an hour south of Little Rock, Ark. It’s a Thursday evening in March and Jim Whitmore enters through Gate 5.
Jim’s parents divorced when he was around 4 years old. His father was in a constant cycle of marriage and divorce. So Jim saw stepmoms come and go. “When he didn’t like one place, it was easy to pack up and go to the other,” he says. His dad was married 15 times.
Although Jim’s dad was involved in his life, what he learned from his dad was more by default of “what not to do to be a man.” When he was 11 years old, Jim’s dad was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Until this year, Jim’s only experience with prison was going to visit his dad on death row.
Jim, who serves with FamilyLife, greets the prisoners with a smile and a handshake as they enter the visitors’ center. Some 95 inmates wear matching white uniforms from the shoulders of their white shirts to the toes of their white shoes and socks. The men range from their mid-20s to mid-70s. The prisoners include murderers, drug dealers, sex offenders and thieves.
They sit in rows of plastic chairs as Jim begins to speak. “Guys, we have been on an incredible journey – 10 weeks and here we are tonight at our graduation. Tonight is a turning point.”
Jim is also dressed in a short-sleeved, white shirt. His blue eyes peer out behind his wire rim glasses. He motions with his left arm as he speaks, “What are they going to say about you? What does the end look like?” Jim motions with his right arm, “Let’s watch session 10.”
The room goes dark and the video session about “Having A Vision For Your World” begins.
When Chaplain Cunningham heard about FamilyLife’s Stepping Up: A Call to Courageous Manhood video series from Jim and his co-worker Don Averill, he wanted the men at the Arkansas prison where he worked to go through the lessons. Initially, 265 out of the 865 prisoners signed up to go through it. But because of security concerns only 126 were allowed to go through the lessons the first time it was offered with another 125 men on the waiting list.
While growing up, Jim didn’t really go to church. But when he was in seventh grade, an English teacher invited him to church. There he heard the gospel and accepted Christ. Ironically, Jim’s dad was not a follower of Christ, but he believed in God. Even at a young age he would me tell Jim, “Son, you will never be a man unless you have a relationship with God.”
“I expected prisoners to be a little harder, says Jim. “These guys were broken, transparent and hungry for life change and reconciling relationships.”
Since Stepping Up was designed to be facilitated by volunteers, after the 10 weeks they turned it back over to them for future courses. Dennis Rainey, President of FamilyLife spoke at the March graduation. Here is a snippet of what he said:
“It took Jesus Christ to reach down out of heaven through this book (The Bible) and help me to begin to realize what my real identity is…” One of you came up to me – and said, “I found out who I am.” You know what? That’s a great discovery because it takes God, in the person of Jesus Christ, invading the soul of a man, to turn a boy into a man.”
“Since I’ve been in the Stepping Up program,” says one inmate named Glenn. “I have really understood what manhood is really all about.”
Though we wish it were so, the reality of life is not always a Cinderella story. But during some difficult days, I learned there was something better than a magic wand to wave away my troubles.
This year, we challenge you to start a new tradition with your family by capturing moments and memories and sharing them with one another at year’s end.
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