Finding True Freedom

Anytime you minister to the community, it’s inevitable that you’re going to minister to those touched by incarceration in some way. In 2011, a member of Church of the Highlands approached Montgomery Campus Pastor Chris Erwin to ask if they could bring the church into Alabama correctional facilities in order to provide hope and love to the inmates. Erwin emphatically agreed.

The ministry began with one correctional facility, and has steadily grown over time. The Highlands ministry now serves 23 of the state’s 28 prisons, having planted a life-giving local church in each facility. Their goal is to reach all 28 prisons in the next few years. 

The ministry volunteers start by asking facility staffers about their needs. They then focus on building a ministry that serves those particular needs, and provide a consistent faith community within the correctional facility. Everything they do at the prisons—the service, the atmosphere, the message—is the same as they provide at all Highlands locations. 

“We serve them, love them, listen to them, connect with them, and care for them,” says Associate Pastor Dino Rizzo.

Those who are incarcerated especially long for connection as they struggle with loneliness, defeat and fear. This is precisely why the Church of the Highlands serves as the hands and feet of Jesus to minister to those who feel forgotten. 

“We do all we can to create ministry that touches them at the point where they are,” says Rizzo. “We aren’t just connecting them to God, but also to a community of people on the inside that’s trying to walk in their faith.”

The church’s presence not only impacts inmates and their families, but also correctional officers and the church itself. 

“Our goal is to help people live the lives God created for them,” says Rizzo. “There’s nothing else like it when someone discovers their purpose in life.” 

Highlands has hundreds of people on their team, some of them former inmates who have been ministered to, grown to love God, and are now paying it forward. 

“If that’s not the kingdom of God, I don’t know what is,” says Rizzo.

Amanda Drew was saved while praying in her jail cell. She was at a low point after being sentenced to three 15-year sentences. She began attending services and quickly fell in love with the congregation’s giving nature. 

“That was the first time I experienced a church that welcomed me with open arms,” she says. 

In January 2014, Drew was baptized by Erwin. Six months later, she was released on parole. She then immediately connected to Highlands College because she knew her life was meant for ministry.

She graduated with a certificate in Christian leadership and is now a teacher’s assistant at Highlands College. She’s also a coach at the Madison Campus and a facility leader for the Morgan County Correctional Facility where she facilitates the Letters of Hope team. In this program, church volunteers write anonymous letters to inmates to let them know that someone on the outside is praying for them. 

Drew knows firsthand the power these letters hold. “When you’re locked up, you’re in a state of despair. You’re certain that things will never get better and that no one believes in you. Some inmates get no calls, no letters, no visitors, so these letters are their only connection to hope.”

She is certain that had she not found Christ, she would have died from her drug addiction.

“I found out when I was in drug rehab that I’d been overdosing every day,” she says. “If I hadn’t found Jesus, I wouldn’t have my husband, my church or my purpose in life. Now I wake up excited every day.”

Jose Villegas, a former inmate, now serves as a coach at the Alabaster Campus. In December 2023, he started a Spanish service at the Kilby Correctional Facility that’s attended by 20–25 men. Villegas says that being part of a community is a huge help.

“Highlands came in week after week, and despite our failures, they loved us like family,” he says. “I’m so thankful for a life-giving church.”

The church also assists former prisoners in acclimating to life as they reenter society.

“We partner with different resources so that when they finish their sentences, we can help them bridge that connection,” says Rizzo.

They hope other churches will implement similar programs to encourage and inspire inmates as well as walk alongside them when they are released. 

“When I received Jesus, I got adopted into a huge family who will be there for me, no matter what. They will encourage me and pray for me and not be done with me,” says Drew. “If you give Jesus a chance, watch how he can change your life.”

To learn how you can grow a similar ministry at your church, contact info@churchofthehighlands.com.

Christy Heitger-Ewing
Christy Heitger-Ewinghttp://christyheitger-ewing.com/

Christy Heitger-Ewing is a contributing writer for Outreach magazine. In addition, Christy pens the “Now & Then” column in Cabin Life magazine. She also writes regularly for Christian publications such as Encounter, Insight, and the Lookout. She is the author of Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat.