Jail ministers lead services where few willing to tread


By Ernest Herndon


LIBERTYAmite County jailer Danny Meaux opens the heavy steel door and crooks his finger. “You can go in now.”


Jim Sterling and the Rev. Hong Yoo proceed down a dark corridor and into a small cellblock, where five inmates await.


It’s 8:30 on a Saturday morning. Yoo, pastor of Liberty and Whittington Memorial United Methodist churches, and Sterling, a member at Whittington, lead religious services at the jail every other Saturday.


“It’s easy to get to hell ... but it’s hard getting into heaven, and that’s what we try to do is show you how to get to heaven,” Sterling said to the inmates.


His audience doesn’t look particularly excited. They’ve finished their breakfast and seem sleepy, bored, maybe depressed.


Sterling holds up a Bible.


“Everything about life is written in that book - everything from planting crops to breeding animals. If you like stories, if you like adventure, there’s adventure stories in there. There’s love stories in there. ... It explains exactly how to get into the kingdom of heaven.


“We as individuals are trying to spread the word that there is a way to go that you can have eternal life.”


The inmates sit at two tables whose surfaces are covered in graffiti, some of it Satanic. Several cells with steel doors face the main room.


Hong asks an inmate to read from John 9, where Jesus heals a blind man. Then Yoo preaches a short, energetic sermon.


“When we accept Jesus Christ, we can see,” he said.


“Just believe in your deep heart. The power of the Holy Spirit will touch your heart.”


When he finishes, Sterling tells the inmates Hong was a Buddhist monk in South Korea, with two master’s degrees, a black belt and a law degree.


“I need a lawyer,” an inmate said.


“I can’t help you,” Hong said. “I don’t have a license in the United States. I have a license in South Korea. But brother, I will pray for you.”


To kill time while waiting for Meaux, Hong gives a martial arts demonstration. He said he’s out of shape - too much Southern cooking - but still knows the techniques.


He has an inmate - a tall, slender man around 20 years old - stand in front of him and pretend to hold a knife. Hong grasps the knife hand, twists it, places a foot behind the inmate’s legs and takes him quickly to the floor.


“Now you dead,” Hong said with a laugh, then helps the man up. He demonstrates again in slow motion.


The group chats about religion. Two of the five inmates say they are churchgoers. A third said he is a follower of Jesus. Sterling holds up a small New Testament.

“In the back of this book there’s a plan of salvation, and if you decide to follow Christ, all you have to do is follow that plan and sign that book. That’s basically all there is to it. When you get out of here you can be baptized. It’s nothing complicated. It’s really simple.”


When Meaux still doesn’t arrive, one of the inmates slams a cell door against the wall to draw his attention.


Sterling recalls the time a county supervisor accompanied him into the jail, and the jailer seemingly forgot them. “He’s never been back,” Sterling said with a grin.


Meaux arrives, and the jail ministers file outside into brisk air and sunshine, away from the stale air and dull light in the cellblock.


Sterling reminisces about the time he and Hong baptized an inmate in a cattle trough outside the jail.


It was cold, and concerns about liability if an inmate took sick prevented future baptisms. Instead he and Hong urge them to go to church when they get out.


“I just get a blessing out of it. Makes me feel good to know that I’m spreading the word, like in the book of Matthew. It said visit the sick and visit those in jail,” Sterling said, referring to Matthew 25:31-46.


Hong came to the United States in 1998 and to Liberty in 2003, getting involved in the jail ministry shortly afterward.


“I just want to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ,” Hong said. “He said go to the poor, the sick, the oppressed.”


About then a big pickup pulls up. Sheriff Tim Perkins gets out and shakes hands. Hong and Sterling are among several church groups that visit the jail, Perkins said.


“I see positive,” he said of the effect on inmates. “At least here they’re exposed to it, and it’s a captive audience back there. And if they’ll listen and pick up just a little of what’s shared back there, it may be the seed that changes their lives.”