“I set mattresses on fire,” says Tommy Davis about his years in the prisons he now visits as a Christian minister. “I was so violent I had to be incarcerated 23 hours a day in my cell. I felt my purpose was to persecute non-Muslims in hopes they would turn to Allah.”
In 1991 Davis, then 18, received a 29-year sentence for assault in Rochester, N.Y. He embraced Islam but met Frank Farrow, a chaplain who for nine months talked with him about Jesus, the Trinity, and salvation through grace. Davis remembers that he prayed one night, “‘Lord’—I don’t know why I said Lord, I didn’t say Allah—‘if Christianity is real, you need to answer these questions.’ And I went to church that morning, and the chaplain preached a message on salvation—how the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. He answered every question I had in that one sermon.”
David professed faith in Christ in 1994, studied for three years, and began taking on some chaplain duties. Farrow, now 81, says, “When Tommy started talking—he hit home. Some of the fellas there almost started ducking when he got up to preach. He found his calling.” Paroled in 2001 after nearly 12 years in prison, Davis gained a full-time job in meat packing, married a prison guard, had three children, and earned a bachelor’s degree in theology and then a master’s in ministry from Tennessee Temple.
Now Davis, along with fellow Good News Jail and Prison Ministry chaplains Paul Burress and Ron Morse, spends about six hours daily in the jail. They make an odd trio. Burress, senior pastor at Rochester’s Victory Church, wears a T-shirt marked “American Fighter” that just covers his tattoos. Morse, who was a volunteer in the jail during Davis’ time as a prisoner, wears a gray suit and calls himself “the minister to the sinister.” Davis wears a blue argyle vest. His shoes shine.
The three move as a unit through the facility. Many staff members stop to trade shoulder-slaps with them and exchange greetings. A passing officer says, “Surgery coming up, say a prayer for me?” “Sure will, brother.” They take the elevator to the housing part of the prison. There they walk the floors and talk and talk. Sometimes prisoners ask them for greeting cards to give to family.
The rule is that the three cannot start “proselytizing” conversations but they can respond to prisoner interest. One man looks down from his cell, calling for Davis’ attention: He motions that he’ll come back later to talk. Prisoners volunteer to join in Bible studies that meet in a small classroom. The chaplains say they feel grateful they get to minister in a government building.
About 2,000 inmates reside in the three area jails where Davis, Burress, and Morse minister. According to statistics gathered by Good News volunteers, 633 area prisoners made professions of faith in Christ in 2012. Such a statistic should be taken skeptically—words come easily in prison—
but there’s truth in what Burress says about such high numbers: “On the outside we’re fake. But once a guy’s sitting there wearing an orange outfit, the pride’s gone. The wall is stripped away. Everyone cries in his cell at night.”
Sheriff Patrick O’Flynn calls the Good News team a secondary staff. He points out that housing an inmate costs upwards of $33,000 per year, somewhat like sending a student to college, so the chaplains “bring a whole system in without taxing taxpayers. It’s the one rehab program that does work.”
Major Timothy Horan, who supervised Davis’ floor 22 years ago, talks with the prisoner-turned-chaplain about what was: “The way you carried yourself, talked. ... If you were to tell me 20 years ago we’d stand here, I wouldn’t believe it.” Horan calls Good News “a calming influence, a light at the tunnel’s end, an insight into hope. It’s contagious. It’s the flu bug in reverse.”
Since 1998 Harvey Yoder has traveled around the world writing Christian biographies for the Mennonite publisher TSG, an offshoot of the Anabaptist mission organization, Christian Aid Ministries. His 25 books, often written in the first person, trace the lives of persecuted or impoverished Christians in China, Ukraine, Africa, and Belize, among other places.
Yoder seeks low-profile subjects. He uses an interpreter while doing weeks of interviewing, then comes home to write in Spruce Pine, N.C., and finishes the book in about two months. About 75 percent of his readers are Amish or Mennonite, and his bestseller is The Happening, an account of the Nickel Mines Amish school shooting in 2006, which sold 80,000 copies.
Yoder’s career as a traveler began when he was a teenager: He went out an upstairs window from his home and got on a bus to Virginia, where he attended his brother’s Mennonite church. Yoder wore bell-bottoms and refused to cut his hair, then finally at a Mennonite youth convention confessed to a youth minister: “I can’t be good.” When the youth minister prayed for him, Yoder experienced a euphoric conversion.
Now 61, Yoder lives with his wife Karen in a simple house and dresses in a way perhaps reminiscent of Amish fashion, but artistic: sleek silver glasses, blue plaid button-up shirt, and well-fitting jeans, Yoder stands so tall that the strings hanging from the ceiling fan in his writing room touch his hair. He considers himself a bridge between the Mennonite/Amish community and other Christians around the world. —C.K.