The Ripple Effect Breaks Confinement
“I was so frustrated, I told God that I just had to share the gospel, and that’s when He gave me a ‘Moses moment,’” AG evangelist Donna Sparks recalls about her launch into ministry. “What did I have in my hand? I had a life filled with a lot of brokenness and pain . . . then God showed me that many people in jails and prisons have similar brokenness and pain in their lives too!”
Sparks’ life testimony would likely cause many-a-self-righteous eyebrow to raise in judgement. Yet it’s those very things — addiction, broken marriages, depression, etc. — that the Holy Spirit helped her to overcome through a relationship with Christ that now make her an in-demand speaker at Christian conferences, churches, and her first calling — jails and prisons.
And although Sparks can now point to a growing demand outside of prisons for her ministry, which now includes camps, it’s what is taking place today in Sparks’ prison ministries that is making more than a little ripple — inside and out.
In 2015, Sparks launched Story of Grace Prison Ministry, ministering to women in local county jails and seeing scores of them making decisions for Christ, baptized, and baptized in the Holy Spirit. But in 2021, following speaking at Henderson AG, AG chaplain Steve Crino, then serving in the men's prison at Whiteville (Tennessee) Correctional Facility (and was also interim pastor at Henderson AG at the time), spoke with her — he wanted her to come start a ministry at Whiteville for the men!
After prayer and a bit more than a little apprehension of ministering to the men’s population of Whiteville, Sparks agreed. The ministry launched, God began to show up in the prison in powerful ways, and then Crino resigned.
“Next I get a call from Steve (Crino) in 2022 — he’s now working at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville,” Sparks says. “He wants me to come start a ministry there as well. Now, this is a prison that has a death row inmates and house some of the worst offenders — men who’ve committed some heinous crimes — but I agreed to do it.”
Like many fledgling ministries, when Sparks first started at Whiteville, only a handful came, but when the Holy Spirit made His presence felt, there was a ripple effect.
“We’ve had tremendous services at Whiteville, men saved and baptized in the Holy Spirit with evidence of speaking in tongues,” Sparks says. The word began to spread.
In last month’s service, the small chapel was standing-room-only as around 70 inmates were either seated or standing and lining the walls, listening and responding.
And although God is working through Sparks to transform lives, she takes no credit.
“It’s all God,” she says, adding that the growing popularity of the monthly Whiteville services can be attributed to the Holy Spirit changing lives and manifesting through multiple documented physical healings.
“There was a man who came to the service, and he had a lot of braids in his hair — I didn’t think anything about it,” Sparks says. “I preached on healing and during the altar service, he came up and said, ‘Miss Donna, pray for my healing. On the back of my head are two tumors, the size of golf balls.’ I raised his hair and I could see them. So, I reached behind and put my hand on the tumors and began to pray, and as I did, both tumors shrunk and disappeared beneath my hand! I was thrilled to death that God would use me in such a way and the man, he began yelling, ‘They’re gone! They’re gone!’”
Divine healing, of course, is an unforgettable gift to an individual, but the purpose typically is far greater — to point others to Jesus, the giver of eternal life . . . and so Sparks shares:
“Later that night I got an email from a lady I have never met before. She told me her son had decided to go to the service tonight, even though he was an atheist. She wrote, ‘He called me after the service, saying, “I believe in God, I believe in God! I saw an actual miracle happen before my eyes in service today!” He saw tumors disappear from that man’s head and I just wanted to thank you for going into the prison and ministering to them.’”
When the heavy steel gates slowly close and audibly lock behind individuals as they enter Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, it’s not unusual for an ominous shiver to run down one’s spine.
The men locked within Riverbend aren’t here for petty crimes or for short terms. Many of them are members of somewhat-less-than-pleasant prison gangs and some are roughly the size of a house — or at least seemingly capable of bench pressing one. Tight lips, hard eyes, body and facial tattoos, skilled in manipulating others, trusting no one, and plenty of evil intent still consume many of their souls.
And into this setting walks 5-foot, 7-inch and now 50-year-old Donna Sparks to minister.
But as Sparks points out, God doesn’t want a single inmate in hell and, judging by what the Holy Spirit has already been doing, there’s a growing list of those who will spend eternity with Christ!
“It’s just so amazing how God is moving!” Sparks says. “Just last month we had men baptized in the Holy Spirit with evidence of speaking in tongues and four men were slain in the Spirit —that’s totally uncommon in prison!”
Sparks shares that healings are taking place regularly in Riverbend as well — one man could no longer move his head because of extremely painful neck neuropathy, but was healed and has been pain-free for nine months (to the shock of prison physicians) while another man had a lump in his chest that was healed, which inspired him to come the next month for prayer for sciatica, which was immediately healed.
“When you see men who look like they’ve been in a motorcycle gang — big, bulky, muscular, tattoos — they have tears running down their faces and they’re just surrendering to God . . . it’s been amazing to see that,” Sparks says. “God is just doing it. I have no power of my own. The Holy Spirit is my best friend — He’s the one that does it. I give God all the glory for it.”
Perhaps what Sparks is finding most encouraging within the prison walls is how her faith in the Holy Spirit and prayer has had a ripple effect within growing numbers of the prison community — her faith has become their faith and they are living it out!
“Two months ago, an inmate, who is a worship leader at Riverbend, told me that since I had last been there, a new man had come into their prison pod and died of a fentanyl overdose [likely some other drug, smuggled into the prison, had been laced with fentanyl],” Sparks says. “He told me how they gathered around the man and prayed, ‘Bring him back, God, so he can have one opportunity to hear the gospel — spare his life to hear the gospel just one time.’ The paramedics were able to bring the man back and the paramedics couldn’t believe it themselves.
“Then the inmate pointed out the chapel window at a man walking and told me that was the man — he was coming to church today,” Sparks says. “The man got saved and baptized in the Holy Spirit in our service and when I went back last month, he was there again. Now he’s out there sharing his testimony! These men have seen the power of prayer and now they’re going out and asking God for miracles and they’re seeing them happen!”
RIPPLE BEYOND THE WALLS
“One of the important parts of being an evangelist is not just seeing what God can do through you, but equipping others for God to do the same things through them,” Sparks says.
As a result of following that guidance, Sparks has been blessed to take incredible stories outside of the prison walls of God doing the miraculous in and through the lives that some may view as “the greatest of sinners.”
“I’m sharing what God is doing in prison and people are getting excited, wanting to see God move like that in their congregation,” Sparks says, “and as a result of that renewed passion for God, I’m seeing Him move at other events and churches all over the nation.”
Sparks notes that there was a time in her ministry that she would tell inmates of how God was moving in churches outside the prison walls, and that He could do the same inside the walls. Now the script has flipped.
“God has a purpose and plan for everything He does,” Sparks says. “And it’s just phenomenal to see.”
Although the Holy Spirit is indeed impacting and transforming lives within prison walls, Sparks asks for prayer for the men and women who have made decisions for Christ — in very challenging environments — as well as for the Holy Spirit to continue His work in drawing more inmates to the services.
“Attending a service isn’t as simple as it seems [in the prisons],” Sparks adds. “To attend church means you sacrifice your time in the yard (going outside) that day, and that’s a tough decision for many. Also, pray for a solution to the fentanyl crisis — there’s great fear going through prisons at this time due to the high number of fentanyl deaths occurring. Everything from beverages and food to cigarettes and smuggled in drugs potentially could be laced with deadly amounts of fentanyl (just 2 mcg — two-millionths of a gram — is considered potentially deadly).”