Gathering Inside the Walls
Every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, the men of The Church at Twin Rivers in Monroe, Washington, praise and worship to live music, pray together, then dive deep into Bible study. When the meetings end, they return to their cells inside the Twin Rivers Correctional Facility, which houses convicts who have committed crimes ranging from sexual assault to murder.
“There is a living body of believers inside prison,” says former inmate Mike A. North, 45, who spent a year at Twin Rivers and became a worship leader there. “That’s not an aspect that many churchgoers think about. It would be a dark place without the body of Christ in there. When you see someone who has joy in his heart behind bars, you know he has Christ.”
Twin Rivers’ vibrant prison church is in a parent-affiliated relationship with The Church at Maltby in Snohomish, Washington, and is led by Dennis M. Stoycoff, 73, or “Pastor D” to the inmates. Three weekly services draw nearly 100 incarcerated men.
“The Lord laid on my heart that I needed to get behind Dennis to encourage and inspire him to keep doing what he was doing, because the Lord was using him in that prison,” says David N. Brakke, 58, lead pastor at The Church at Maltby, which inherited the prison church when merging with another congregation six years ago.
Stoycoff, a retired truck driver and teamster representative from California, never envisioned himself in prison ministry, even though he had been actively involved in men’s ministries for decades. Fourteen years ago, a prison minister invited him to visit the inmate congregation in Twin Rivers.
“When you go in it’s a whole different atmosphere than you have experienced,” Stoycoff says. “You go through multiple locked doors with buzzers. Everywhere you look there’s barbed wire, razor wire. I came home and told my wife, ‘Somebody has to go in there and preach the gospel.’ She said, ‘You’re somebody.’”
Since then, Stoycoff visits the facility an average of five days a week.
Stoycoff preaches interactive sermons in which men raise their hands and ask questions. He finds the feedback amazing, and says some men have six years of lessons stored up.
Ordained in 1992, Stoycoff ministered for 12 years in Stockton, California’s, toughest gang area, which taught him a lot that helps inside the prison now.
“I have to talk bluntly or they don’t believe me,” Stoycoff says, “I have to be stone-cold direct.”
Stoycoff has baptized 90 men in the past three years, and many consider The Church at Maltby their congregation.
“The guys call themselves the Men of Maltby, Inside,” Stoycoff says. “They consider David their pastor.”
Some send tithe envelopes to the church bearing firstfruits from their 40-cents-an-hour jobs. Two volunteers from the church accompany Stoycoff on Wednesdays to help teach the Celebrate Recovery class and the afternoon Bible study, which is heavy on apologetics and theology and entertains questions such as “Did Jesus Say he was God?”, “Resurrection: Fact or Theory?”, and the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds.
One of the most feared inmates asked to sit in on the class. Two weeks later, he accepted Christ and asked Stoycoff, “Where has Jesus been all my life?” He was baptized in water and joined the worship band. When he left the facility he gave Stoycoff a big hug and said, “I love you, pastor.”
“When I’m giving the lesson, I see the lights go on in the guys’ eyes and things change from then on,” Stoycoff says. “You can tell the difference.”
Former inmate North, who led worship on an acoustic guitar and taught himself bass while in prison, says Stoycoff impressed him by coming midweek just to sit in the room so the worship band could rehearse. North says the camaraderie among Christian inmates helped him grow considerably while he served time. He says Christians in prison simply don’t want to be forgotten.
“I learned so much from the men in there about life and dealing interpersonally with other people,” North says. “If you can get past the fact that you’re incarcerated, you can get a lot of good Bible study in.”
North, who has a wife and two children, is now a ministry leader at a church in Woodinville, and is vice president of communications at a Christian ministry to prisoners.
“God has gone beyond restoring the years the locusts have eaten,” he says. “I am living the most blessed season of my life.”
Photo: David Brakke (left) and Dennis Stoycoff are committed to leading inmates at Twin Rivers.