Praying for the incarcerated, Chattanooga group raises awareness during Lent

Contributed Photo by Austin Garrett / The 2nd floor of the Hamilton County Jail is shown during the early stages of the pandemic.

They are praying for people they have never met. People whose lives likely look nothing like their own.

The messages come electronically, read on a phone or computer or laptop when the time is right. Those prayed for do not have the same freedom, the same leisure. Their lives are regulated by the clock, the system, the guards.

The point is to bring these two communities closer.

Chattanooga Endeavors, a local group helping those in and out of the justice system, is a week into its Lenten Cross Project, a 40-day prayer program. Each day around 190 people receive emails with a Bible reading and personal account from an incarcerated individual telling bits of their story.

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Timothy Dempsey, founder of the organization, said the Lenten season in Christianity has traditionally involved work with or for people who are incarcerated. The cross project helps raise awareness, he said.

"We wanted to make sure to present something that enabled people to understand a fuller picture of the criminal justice system from the perspective of individual stories as they enter into that space and are impacted by it," he said.

People sign up online to receive the daily Bible readings and reflections. They pray for a person who is in prison, and they have the option to donate to Chattanooga Endeavors.

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photo Staff File Photo / Timothy Dempsey, executive director of Chattanooga Endeavors.

Floyd Davis was incarcerated for two years in Kansas in the 1990s. Davis, a board member at Chattanooga Endeavors and a former chaplain at the Silverdale Detention Center, said society stigmatizes those who have been incarcerated, acting as though those individuals do not need help.

"Some people think that the people that are incarcerated don't need prayer because they did something wrong," Davis said. "I would say they were wrong because, after being incarcerated myself, what I did was wrong. Yes. Was I coming out? Yes. Did I need prayer before I came out? Yes."

Chattanooga Endeavors, through another arm of the organization named Stephen's Table, tracks people from Hamilton County who are in the Tennessee Department of Correction or the federal prison system. This helps the organization stay in touch and build individualized re-entry plans, Dempsey said. It takes around nine years for a formerly incarcerated individual's chance of reoffending to be the same statistically as the crime rate for the general population, he said.

Helping people re-enter society successfully goes beyond working with formerly incarcerated individuals, Dempsey said. It involves building a caring community, too, he said.

"You have to have a responsive and open community that understands something about crime and corrections and all these issues that overlap," Dempsey said. "It has a sensitivity and a compassion for them to help an organization achieve its goals. You have to have a receptive community in order for the sense of place in Chattanooga to extend to people that have been incarcerated."

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Bill Hicks, a Chattanooga Endeavors board member, said he is driven to participate in and support the project from the description of Christian action outlined in the 25th chapter of the Book of Matthew, specifically the biblical call for Christians to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned.

Physically visiting people inside a prison or jail is difficult, Hicks said, so the first step can be learning about the system and praying for individuals there.

"Just because they have the label of being incarcerated doesn't mean that they cease to be a person. And we value that person," he said. "And we attempt to make them understand that even if we can't talk directly to them, in many instances we can certainly pray for them."

Contact Wyatt Massey at [email protected] or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.