When Chris Pernell visits Clay County Jail each month to lead a Bible study for inmates, it truly is a full-circle moment. He teaches in the same jail chapel where he professed faith in Christ as an inmate more than a decade ago.
A recent Tuesday night service at the detention facility in West Point, Mississippi, drew 20 inmates clad in jail T-shirts and striped pants, filling the chapel’s half-dozen wooden pews.
The sparsely decorated room features a cross and crown of thorns prominently situated behind a small pulpit. A banner on one wall boldly proclaims, “God Is Real.”
As Pernell stands to speak, he is just a few feet from the spot where he began his new life in Christ.
“I know what it is to travel in shackles and chains,” he tells the men. “When I came in, I was a wreck. I was a mess.”
Pernell added that during the 28 months he was incarcerated for drugs and violating probation, he made a commitment “to be better than what I was when I came in.”
The pastor who let the phone ring
With a supportive family, a steady job, a caring local church and seminary extension training, Pernell is now dedicated to helping create a positive spiritual difference in the lives of others. In addition to the jail ministry, he often speaks at area prisons and a drug recovery facility in nearby Columbus.
He said a key part of his faith journey has been an unexpected friendship with Jim Sallee, which began even before he went to jail. Sallee, pastor of Riverside Chapel Baptist Church in West Point, “came into my life” as a friend and mentor “who helped me, who guided me, who gave me firm instructions in the Word of God.”
Prior to his incarceration, Pernell recalled, he was visiting with Sallee when the pastor’s phone rang. Rather than interrupting their conversation to answer, Sallee kept visiting with his office guest.
When Pernell asked if he was going to answer his phone, the pastor responded, “No, this is about you. I need to know you.”
“That said a whole lot,” Pernell remembered. “That said more than I can say right now of the sincerity in him of wanting to help people.
“This is what really helped me to understand how true this man was to the ministry and to God,” Pernell said. “He’s been a friend, confidant, pastor, leader, mentor. Everything I can think of that is good, that’s what he’s been in my life.”
Sallee recalled that Pernell told him at the time, “That’s the first time anybody ever put me first in their life.”
“That was just a huge moment that really touched my heart,” Sallee said, “to realize that some of the most simple things can touch people’s lives, just giving them the attention that they need.”
He went on to speak on Pernell’s behalf in court and to faithfully visit him almost every month he was imprisoned.
“The scripture is pretty clear … that we’re all supposed to be discipling somebody,” Sallee explained.
During their monthly visits in jail, “We would talk about the Lord. We would talk about the issues that he was facing. It just became a deep, close friendship in a very unusual setting.”
Sallee said he is grateful “to see God work in a man’s life to change him from violence, full of sin, full of hatred, full of anger, to one who is now full of compassion, love for other people, cares about other people.”
‘Only God can change you’
Even with the nearly two-and-a-half years he was in prison, Pernell insists “the journey has been good.”
“Overall, everything that I’ve gone through, I can say I’m thankful for because it let me know that after all of this, there’s a better way in life,” he said, quickly adding “only God can change you when you really want that change.”
“My passion now is to go back in and talk to the men and to help them,” Pernell said. Assuring the inmates “you can be free of those things that can cause the problems in your life, the struggles, the trouble,” he affirmed that “there have been quite a few men who have been led to the Lord.”
“The way I live now is totally different from what it used to be,” Pernell related. “I credit it all to God and to those who God has blessed to be in my life to help with those changes” — including a pastor who let his phone keep ringing.