Scottie Barnes thought she’d never go to prison again.
She’d been going to visit her father since she was 4 years old: He’d been imprisoned five times for a variety of offenses, from bootlegging to drug trafficking. She’d been through the emotional ringer, dealing with deep-seated anger toward him for many years before she forgave him. She’d seen him reject the Lord nearly until the end of his life.
But she also saw him turn to Christ, just over a year before he died behind bars. And when she was in her late 30s, she heard him tell her he loved her—for the first time ever.
“I can’t tell you what those three words meant,” Barnes says. “From then on, it took away all the darkness in my heart that I’d had since I was a little girl. And I knew it was because he now loved Jesus that he could really love me.
“As he was buried, I didn’t grieve. I was very sad, but I was also so thankful that he was in Heaven because I’d thought for so many years that he’d be in Hell.”
Barnes finally had closure. Or so it seemed.
Then, in late 1996—nearly a decade after her father died, and a few months before her own 50th birthday—two men walked into the boutique she owned in Taylorsville, N.C. The chaplain and superintendent of the local prison had come to ask her to tell her story at Sunday night services.
She agreed, but with mixed feelings.
“When I went out the door that day (to speak at the service), I said to my husband, ‘Jack, I never wanted to go back to prison, and here I am doing it,’ ” she recalls. “When I left Daddy’s grave, I’d said, ‘Lord have mercy, I’ll never have to go back to prison again.’
“And I’ve been in prison ever since.”
What started that Sunday night later led to Forgiven Ministry—a group Barnes founded to serve both inmates and their families. And that ministry gave birth to an innovative program that has won praise from families, prison officials and even secular media.
It’s called One Day with God. But it’s not just about one day: It’s about laying the foundation for both life-long and eternal relationships.
Inside the Walls
Family visits in prison usually are a bleak business. There’s little touching allowed for security reasons. “In most state prisons, normal visitation is just sitting in a chair across a table for two hours,” Barnes says. “The inmates can’t hold their babies.”
Except on the days when One Day with God shows up.
“We bring children into prison,” Barnes says. “They run to meet their parents, who can pick them up and hold them all day if they want to. The inmates get to take off their prison shirts and wear our T-shirts. They can play games, have fun together.”
That experience alone is precious to parents and children alike. But there’s much more to the program than that.
One Day with God ministers to a small segment of inmates in any given prison—those believed by chaplains and other officials to be committed to reconciliation and reform. The day before the event, they undergo a four-hour prep session, taking a seminar on being godly parents—dads in most cases, moms in some.
“With the men, we end the day with what we call a Father’s Blessing,” says Ministry Coordinator Andrew Lackey. “We have men who step in as surrogate fathers to the inmates to give them a biblical blessing, which they can pass on to their own children the next day.”
On Saturday, the children arrive, escorted not only by their regular caregivers but by volunteers from nearby churches. It’s a full day. There are games and entertainment, lighthearted but with a Christian message. There’s cake for birthdays that have been missed. There’s craft time, as dads and kids get to know each other. There’s a father-daughter dance, and a father-son walk where they talk about what it means to become a man.
Then it’s blessing time. “The dad says, ‘I love you. I’m proud of you. I’m glad God gave you to me,’ ” Lackey says. “Then the final 45 minutes is quiet time, with no activities. They just talk. That’s when the kids can get things off their hearts that they need to share, or when the fathers can tell them, ‘I’m sorry. This is not your fault.’ ”
Although there are fewer women in prison, One Day with God has programs for them too. “It’s pretty similar, just adapted for gender differences,” Barnes says. “Dads or moms, sons or daughters, we’re here for all of them.”
‘This Is Why We Do It’
With a program that departs from so many of the normal prison rules, Barnes wondered whether prison officials would go along with it when she began pitching it to them in 2003.
“In my heart, I felt they would reject it,” she says. “But the very first superintendent I asked said, ‘Let’s do it.’ God had gone before me and prepared the way. It was all ordained. God was just waiting on me to do it.”
Since then, Forgiven Ministry has held more than 300 One Day with God camps with roughly 6,800 incarcerated parents and 9,900 children. In 2017 alone, it’s doing 34 camps in seven states—Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
“We’ve also been in Kentucky, Colorado, and Ohio,” Lackey says. “We’ve had inquiries from New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois. We’re looking to expand. That’ll depend on God’s timing and grace.”
Good word on the program has spread rapidly, especially since December 2015. That’s when ABC’s Nightline did a 10-minute segment on One Day with God, showing the heartwarming and heartbreaking reunions—or in some cases, first meetings—between fathers and children. (The video is available at forgivenministry.org/media, as is a later Nightline segment on camps with mothers in prison.)
“We got hundreds of emails and phone calls right after that,” Barnes says of the first broadcast. “They were coming in so fast we couldn’t answer them all. It went on for days.”
Media aside, One Day with God has built a good reputation among prison officials. Like Philip Sifuentes,
senior warden of the Torres/Ney Complex in Hondo, Texas, which held an event on June 24.
“When the children ran and jumped into their dads’ arms, it was wonderful to see,” he says. “The raw emotion that I witnessed from these men who live in a tough environment—they became human again.
“I was standing next to Scottie Barnes, and she turned to me and said, ‘This is why we do it.’ ”
One Day with God was held in the prison recreational area, where all the inmates could see it. That location was intentional.
“It was an emotional event to watch,” Sifuentes says. “Those who weren’t participating could watch and say, ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool.’ ”
And that’s made an impact on the whole prison.
“We’ve seen a huge, drastic change at the Torres unit,” Sifuentes says. “When men are shown compassion, when they’re embraced, when they’re shown things that can make a positive impact, it can head them in the right direction.”
The Hands and Feet of Jesus
Barnes hears that sort of thing often. “Wardens tell us all the time that there’s a peace among the men after we leave, for weeks and weeks,” she says. “It doesn’t just stay at the event. The love makes a mark on everyone involved.”
Including the people who make the program possible.
Take Rick Scheel, a software salesman from Comfort, Texas, who’s been a volunteer at many One Day with God events for three years.
“The things I’ve seen and heard are just incredible,” he says. “The lives that are touched, the families that are reconciled—it’s not something you get in your day-to-day life.”
Scheel and his family are particularly enthusiastic helpers. He and his wife store, pack and transport supplies—food, T-shirts, books, gifts and so forth—for events all across Texas. “We completely changed our lifestyle to do this ministry,” he says. “We moved so we could have a bigger home to store all the materials.”
Not everyone can make that sort of commitment. But there are many tasks to be done at various levels of involvement, Lackey stresses—from registering families on the day of the event or providing local transportation to working with the inmates themselves, providing spiritual support and teaching.
“With every prison that we go into for our camps, we need a local church that’s a sponsor and plenty of people to volunteer,” Lackey says. “A typical event would have about 25 fathers or mothers, 40-50 children and 125 volunteers for the weekend.
“We have over 6,000 volunteers and we’re very thankful for them, but we can use more. We can’t do it without those faithful people. They’re the hands and feet of Jesus.”
Barnes has seen more volunteers than she can count show up, all of them covering their own expenses.
“I think they come because they’re experiencing unconditional love, maybe for the first time,” she says. “They truly love these men, even those who’ve killed other men.
“When you can do that, it has to be the Spirit of God helping you.”
Scheel will tell you it’s more than worth the time and trouble.
“If your spiritual life has gotten a little milquetoast, this will absolutely set it on fire,” he says. “We go in thinking we’re going to give the blessings, but we walk out blessed.”
For More Information:To learn more about Forgiven Ministry and how you can support its work, visit forgivenministry.org.
Originally published in the September 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.