Taping up the large box of DVDs, pamphlets and magazines that he carefully packed in his living room, Chris Worley writes on the top in bold letters: “Oregon State Penitentiary Chapel.”
Worley is one of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses who volunteer in a prison ministry that has ramped up during the pandemic. New methods were tested with the hope of reaching some 2.1 million incarcerated individuals in the United States with comfort and hope from the Bible amid lockdowns at these facilities.
“In our prison ministry initiatives, we’ve observed that many inmates want to change,” said Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “They’re looking for a second chance, and some are finding the strength to change by applying Bible principles.”
More than 600,000 individuals exit state and federal prisons each year and face what can be an “overwhelming” transition back into society, according to a proclamation from the White House. “The reentry process is complicated in the best of times, and is even more so with the additional difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Worley himself can testify to the challenge: “I came from that life.”
While he grew up attending religious services in Stockton, California, faith faded into the background as violent crime became his way of life. By age 23, Worley was serving a 10-year sentence in state prison.
A turning point came when he noticed a white inmate roaming the yard, crossing the racial territory lines that others avoided for fear of retribution. Undeterred by the jeers, the inmate continued walking up to white, Black and Hispanic individuals. As he approached, Worley finally realized what the man was doing — offering The Watchtower, the Witnesses’ Bible-based magazine.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” said Worley. “I remember thinking, ‘He really loves people.’”
Moved by the inmate’s devotion, Worley decided to do something about his own spirituality. He vowed to quit fighting, gambling and selling drugs and began studying the Bible in earnest. He eventually started preaching on the yard himself.
After his release on parole in 2006, he was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, met and married wife Bryndal, and began to serve as a full-time Bible instructor.
He decided to help other inmates get the same second chance he had.
Every week for the past five years, Worley visited the Oregon State Penitentiary near his home in Salem to give Bible discourses and offer spiritual counseling. Since the pandemic began, he has provided pastoral care by writing letters and sending monthly packages of Bible-based publications and videos.
Fellow Witnesses who have been doing a similar work in jails, prisons, state hospitals, youth facilities and substance-abuse facilities for decades are eager to return in person when safe to do so, said Hendriks.
“Meanwhile,” he said, “rather than slow down our outreach, we are using this time to improve the training of our volunteers and research innovative ways to expand the work.”
In 2021 alone, more than 6,300 of these volunteers received enhanced training to assist individuals at 920 prison facilities across the country.
Worley isn’t an isolated case among the volunteers.
Darrell Boyce of Louisville, Kentucky, also entered prison at the age of 23 over drug charges. And like Worley, he studied the Bible during his incarceration, was baptized upon his release, and returned to help other inmates spiritually.
At one point, he was even overseeing the prison ministry work at the Pitchess Detention Center in Los Angeles, where he went six days a week to study the Bible with those who requested assistance.
“I felt like I had wasted the first 25 years of my life,” he said. “But I was able to use those years in some positive way to help others, which felt good.”
Having a personal experience with incarceration builds empathy and helps those who are trying to change their lives see that they can be successful, said Worley.
“When they see I was one of them, it turns a corner for a lot of them,” he said. “They see that God can do a lot with them. It’s fantastic.”
The Witnesses’ official website, jw.org, has more information about their prison ministry efforts during the pandemic as well as personal experiences of Bible instructors and learners in prison.
“It is our love for God and for neighbor that moves us to continue to reach out to inmates,” said Hendriks. “We know the God of the Bible believes in second chances.”