For the millions of Americans behind bars – and their families – Christmas is often a painful holiday. It's why prison ministries aim to provide extra encouragement during this time of year.
Roughly two million Americans will spend the holidays incarcerated. More than 1,000 of those inmates are housed at Virginia Beach Correctional Facility in Virginia Beach, VA. While it may be a bittersweet time for the inmates, for the ministers who visit, they remind them that the holidays offer the beauty of God's forgiveness.
"What we do is put chaplains in jails where they belong," said Chaplain Joe Kelty. "But working in a jail is a very difficult thing. So we try to help the staff and deputies understand we're not just here for the inmates, we're here for people. And God loves people."
Most inmates at the VB Correctional are first-time offenders and Kelty often serves as their lifeline to hope.
"That's the interception. It's the great commission to help other people get through their stuff, and help them find God in the midst of their struggles," he said.
Kelty is part of the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, a nonprofit network of 400 chaplains in 22 states, 1 American territory, and 25 countries. The volunteers preach the gospel and help people of all faith backgrounds cope with life in jail.
"One of the most moving parts of the job is when an inmate finds out that a loved one has died on the outside," Kelty said. "And here they are in jail, and they can't be with their family. That's some of the more difficult conversations but also the most meaningful."
Christmas came to the jail early this year. Kelty and other volunteers within the program spread good cheer in the form of Christmas cards and postage stamps, new socks, cookies, and an activity book with the gospel message.
"I have more faith now than I did ever before," said Jesus, an inmate.
Jesus, 32, has been in jail for nine months with another six months to go. He says the only thing he wants for Christmas is patience to finish out his sentence.
"He has delivered me from so many things," the inmate said. "My life could be worse. I know I'm in a situation that's not good-looking, but I'm alive. I still get a second chance and that's the grace of Him."
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The chaplain program is one of a handful made available to the inmates during their time at the VB facility. And one that gives them hope when everything else might seem hopeless.
"Your life is essentially over (in jail)," Kelty explained. "If ever there was a time that you would turn to God, it's probably when you're going through something like that."
Chief Deputy Rocky Holcomb has been on staff at the Virginia Beach Sheriff's Office for more than 30 years. He also served Virginia as a state delegate and said God calls more people in jail than in any other place.
"Folks that are incarcerated here are paying a debt to society. But we understand that they are human beings as well," Holcomb said. "And they certainly deserve to have that vision of hope that there's something outside of here and they can certainly turn their lives around."
In Matthew 25: 36 - 40 Jesus said: "I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." When his disciples asked, 'Lord when did we do these things?' Jesus responded, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."
Kelty said we see the heart of God in this passage, inviting everyone this Christmas season to bless our communities by blessing others.
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