Freedom in Christ Leads to Prison Bars
By Debbonnaire Kovacs, Aug 31, 2016 Photo: Jim and Ann Whitt
When Ann Whitt’s husband Jim, who had been raised Adventist, tried to tell her about the Sabbath, she says she thought it was ridiculous. She hadn’t been raised in a religious home herself, but her grandmother “was a good person and went to church on Sunday, and I’d just never heard of anything like that.”
Then an Adventist friend invited the young couple to a prophecy crusade. It was around 1970. “I saw the woman on the beast, and all that, and I thought that was interesting.” But they only went a few times, then didn’t go back. However, someone began sending them a magazine called These Times. “I started reading it myself, because I thought it was interesting. I read about the Sabbath and it gave me the texts, and I really saw it in the Bible. That’s how I became interested in the Sabbath.”
Ann became convicted that she should keep the Sabbath. She was walking to work at K-Mart when she thought, “Oh, no, I can’t work on the Sabbath!” But what would she do? She and her husband both worked on Sabbath. Finally, she reports, “I made up my mind. ‘I don’t care if I starve to death. I can’t work on the Sabbath.’ I didn’t pray or anything; I wasn’t brought up like that. I just went in, and my boss said, ‘What is it?’ I told him, “I want to keep the Sabbath—it’s on Saturday.’”
To her surprise, he said, “That seems like a reasonable request. I’ll work it out so you can come in in the afternoon, so you can go to church.”
“Well, I thought that was fine—I knew nothing about sundown to sundown. I thought God had just miraculously worked things out for me.”
The next week in church, looking at the bulletin, she asked her husband, “What is this about sundown?” He explained that’s when Sabbath starts and ends. Ann knew she would have to go back and tell her boss she couldn’t work at all on Saturday. “I was scared to death; oh my goodness!”
As a new Christian, Ann expected God would work things out as easily as before, but she was in for a disappointment. Her boss said he had already reworked the whole schedule around her, others were unhappy, and he’d done all he could do.
“Well, then,” said Ann, “I guess I just have to give my notice.”
She told me she felt God had let her down.
A couple of days before her last day at work, another woman asked her why she was quitting. When Ann explained, the other woman said, “Well, I really like my job [as a stocker]. I work alone, nobody bothers me, I get off about four every day, and no weekends.”
On Ann’s last day, this woman walked off her job. Ann never learned why, and thought it was odd, since she’d liked it so much. She doesn’t believe God somehow made the other woman leave her job, of course, but she did run straight to her boss and ask, “Why couldn’t I have that job?”
“I don’t see why you couldn’t!” he replied.
Over the next couple of years, as she grew in faith and experience, Ann began to wish she could help people in some way. She and Jim lived in a small house on a 100-acre farm (not theirs) near Lexington, KY. They could see the prison then called the Federal Correctional Institute from their house. “I wanted to go over there and give Bible studies.”
Her husband was not so sure this was a good idea, but Ann says that “in church one day, it was just like God opened it up. It was just amazing.”
The pastor said there was a young woman who had been an Adventist in the [coed at the time] prison. Would someone like to go visit her? Ann immediately spoke up.
At first, she and Jim went together. The young woman was into drugs and other self-destructive things, but she responded to their friendship. In those days, they were even allowed to take her out for the day and take her to church, as long as they had her back by a certain time. “They don’t do that anymore—ever!” Ann told me.
The young woman had a boyfriend, who had also been into drugs. He wanted to visit her and needed a place to stay. Jim agreed he could stay with them, since they were so close to the prison. So he started staying with the Whitts on weekends and visiting his girlfriend. They turned their lives around. She learned a profession in prison, and after she was released, she got a job and the two married. The Whitts were invited. “The last I heard,” Ann told me, “they were both in church and he had become a Pathfinder leader.”
Ann was hooked. She went to the prison chaplain and asked if she and Jim could give Bible studies. He said they could, but in that case they could no longer visit individual prisoners or have any personal contact until three to four years after the prisoners were released, not even to say “hi” on the street. If a prisoner to whom you were giving Bible studies chose to come to your church, that was allowed, but you had to report it to the prison authorities. Ann agreed to the stipulations and began giving Bible studies in a women’s unit of the still-coed prison. Jim only went with her for two or three years, but Ann kept going alone.
About four years later, the prison changed; all men were sent elsewhere, and the facility became a women’s prison. Now Ann’s Bible studies were given in the chapel, and anyone could come, no matter which unit she lived on. There was a guard in a booth outside the door, but not in the chapel with them.
I asked more about the “personal contact” issue. Ann explained that the women could and did share stories of their own lives, but she couldn’t ask them anything personal, or share her own personal things. “You can tell them anecdotes, and things, but of course not give your address or send mail for them, or anything like that.”
She says it was never a big crowd. She was an Adventist, and that wasn’t popular, even though she was not allowed to proselytize. However, interest grew, and some women brought friends. She saw blessings and changes in their lives, and many told her they would look up Adventist churches when they got out.
After another four years, the prison changed again, going to all men this time. Ann kept on with her Bible studies, with about the same results.
During these years, she worked as a nursing assistant at the Veterans Hospital, along with some part time colporteuring. After about two years of teaching the men, she decided she needed to go to nursing school. During the time she was in nursing school and working full time, her prison ministry was in abeyance. After she got her nursing degree, she worked for the Veterans’ Administration for a year. Then the prison advertised that they needed a nurse. Delighted, Ann applied, and got the job. Only then did she learn that workers were not allowed to give any Bible studies.
“Well, then,” she said, “after I retire I’ll be back!”
For twenty years, her work for prisoners was of a physically healing nature. In 2004, she retired, and immediately applied to give Bible studies again. It wasn’t so easy this time. In Ann’s opinion, personnel made up “all kinds of excuses.” She thinks it is because she is Adventist.
Then she talked to the new Chaplain Director, who told her, “You can’t come in here, I do not have time to train you.”
“Train me?” Ann protested. “I’ve had 20 years, how much training do I need?”
The director, being new, had not known this. “Oh,” she said, “then just come on back in!”
And since 2004, Ann has continued to give Bible studies to prisoners. In fact, a few years ago, she wanted another prison, and again events worked out. Her home church, Lexington, had an evangelistic crusade, and someone came to her and said, “You do prison ministry, don’t you?”
When she said she did, he gave her an interest card from an inmate at Blackburn Correctional Complex, a minimum security state prison nearby. She took the card and went to the Complex. After a brief misunderstanding when a person in the control booth let her in before she had been properly entered into the system, she applied and was approved for prison ministry there. She has worked there about four years.
I asked her, “What is the hardest part, or the thing you dislike the most?”
Ann said, “Getting into the prisons is hard. Also, trying to reach people without proselytizing or being accused of proselytizing.”
I asked, “What do you love the most?”
There was joy in her voice as she replied, “I love giving Bible studies! I love telling people about Jesus, I love preaching the third angel’s message. I love that—it’s my passion! I do that all the time, not just in prison. I give literature all the time, no matter where I am. I talk to people. It’s natural with me now. It’s what I do. I love that.”
Debbonnaire Kovacs is a speaker and the author of 25 books and over 600 stories and articles for adults and children. To learn more about her work or ask her to speak at your organization, visit www.debbonnaire.com.