Going to church on Easter Sunday wasn’t an option for the inmates at the Gibson County jail in Trenton, Tennessee.
So Sheriff Paul Thomas decided to bring church to the inmates.
What happened next was, as Thomas put it, “just a God thing.” And something Thomas will never forget.
For several hours on the Monday night after Easter, the Gibson County correctional complex took on the feel of an old-time tent revival, with the complex simultaneously hosting 11 separate services — led by 11 guest speakers and 11 worship teams — in each of the pods at the facility.
More than 100 inmates made decisions for Christ that night, with some making professions of faith and others making rededications. Forty of the men are on a list to be baptized.
“It was awesome,” said Thomas. “(Holding these services) was something the Lord had just really laid on me to do. I knew that I might get some pushback or some criticism, but I just knew I had to be obedient to it.”
Joel Pigg, pastor of Salem Baptist Church, Trenton, was one of the pastors involved with the “After-Easter” services. He said he was amazed with how engaged the inmates were during the service and invitation.
“Not only was I awed at their response, but also in awe of the level of emotional sincerity of their response,” Pigg noted. “Some had tears running down their cheeks.”
And the story doesn’t end there. Thomas made sure of that.
When he learned so many of the inmates were interested in being baptized, he started hashing out a plan to make it happen.
He originally considered using the “portable baptismal pool” that is owned by the jail.
But Thomas didn’t think that was feasible, or perhaps even appropriate, for this movement. So he started to think bigger — much, much bigger.
“We have a recreational lake here in Gibson County,” he said, “and that’s where we are going to do the baptisms.”
The 40 inmates were bussed to the lake in late April, and many of them were baptized by the preacher who led them to Christ on the night of the services.
Inmates were not required to attend the services, but Thomas estimated more than 95% of them chose to do so.
“They understood it was completely voluntary,” said Thomas. “(We let them know) that if they wanted to stay in their cell, there would be no repercussion.”
Even though the setting was a jailhouse, the “After-Easter” services were not unlike the traditional services that took place at churches all across the state just one day earlier.
Songs of praise and worship were sung, and the “old, old story” was told to attendees, some of whom had likely never previously heard it.
Pigg said he used the “After-Easter” sermon as an opportunity to simply share the gospel in a straightforward way.
“I just talked about Jesus,” said Pigg.
Pigg, who had been preaching a series about the crucifixion and the resurrection at his church, said he boiled down the series to one message for the inmates.
“I had originally thought of sharing about all of my shenanigans as a teenager and how far God has brought me today,” he said. “But then, God spoke to my heart and said ‘Joel, I am not sending you there to talk about you, I am sending you there to talk about me.’”
Dale Denning, pastor of Elevate Church, Milan, was also one of the guest pastors for the services.
Denning said that when he pulled out his Bible at the first part of his sermon, four of the inmates got up from their seats and went to their cells.
“I thought to myself, ‘Boy, these guys don’t even want to hear the word of God,’” he said. “Then, they all returned with their Bibles.”
In addition to Pigg and Denning, other Tennessee Baptist pastors included Steve Hemann (Clear Creek Baptist Church, Dyer) and Ronnie Coleman (SoulQuest Church, Jackson), along with speakers and pastors from various other denominations.
For many years, the complex hosted weekly worship services on Sunday mornings. The services were voluntary and generally featured different guest preachers each week. However, those services were halted in the spring of 2020, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
It was the absence of those services that sparked the “After-Easter” revival idea, Thomas said.
Thomas said he plans for the After-Easter services to become a tradition. He jokingly said he has little choice in the matter; he has to do it.
“If I didn’t do it again, my staff and all these pastors would vote me out of office,” he said with a laugh.
Thomas also noted that some of the pastors are already considering other ways to reach the inmates.
“Several of them said they would like to maybe have a fall revival and a spring revival,” Thomas said. “So, that might be something we try to put together.”
But the Easter services? That’s a definite, he said.
“It’s 100% for sure, going to happen that we’ll do another Easter service in this same way,” Thomas said. “It was too phenomenal to be a one-time thing.”
By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
EDITOR’S NOTE — This article was originally published by the Baptist and Reflector.