Cheeseburgers and the Gospel Bring Inmates to Tears Christ

Cheeseburgers and the Gospel Bring Inmates to Tears, Christ

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For three years, Freedom City Church (FCC) in Springfield, Missouri, has held an annual Festival of Hope at its OCC Campus in Fordland. The festival consists of live music, hip hop, testimonies, ministry, and freshly charcoal-grilled cheeseburgers with sides. But unlike most ministry efforts, the guest list to this event is highly restricted as the OCC (Ozark Correctional Center) Campus is located behind prison walls.

Prison walls or not, the gospel knows no restrictions. John Alarid, lead pastor of Freedom City Church, a former drug addict and inmate himself, established the OCC Campus in order to reach inmates with the gospel. As inmates are released, Alarid and his congregation are prepared to welcome those staying in the area to the church and its nine-month Hope Homes residential discipleship and recovery program. Those inmates who have turned to Christ and indicate a desire to be a part of the Hope Homes, are, upon their release, offered the opportunity to enroll as space is available.

“The OCC is a treatment facility for inmates who have issues with substance abuse,” Alarid explains. “They only stay a year and then are released. However, most have ‘backup’ time — meaning if they violate parole or commit another crime, they not only have to serve the time for whatever new crimes they committed, but also serve any time remaining on their original sentences.”

On Aug. 17, Alarid and 40 volunteers from FCC were welcomed into the OCC facility — including six volunteers who once served time there — to put on the festival. It was a time of anticipation and excitement for what they believed God was about to do.

But what difference can a “cheeseburger outreach” make in reaching the hearts and minds of inmates?

Alarid, an endorsed AG chaplain with the AG U.S. Missions Chaplaincy department, quickly puts that question to rest. He says the outreach is one of the most effective outreaches the church has.

“Most people don’t understand the kind of impact a grilled hamburger can have on an inmate,” he says. “I often have inmates come up and thank me, with tears in their eyes, for the meal.” Whether it’s the smell of grilled food taking inmates back to a better time in their lives or simply the taste that reminds them of a picnic or even freedom, it’s hard to know, but whatever it is, the meal, music, and testimonies prepare inmates for ministry.

This year was no different than past years’ results. Following a message by Alarid, he gave an altar call. “We didn’t count how many came forward, but the pictures show at least 100 — there may have been as many as 150 who gave their lives to Christ,” he says. “Immediately after the altar service, we held a baptismal service there in the chapel, and more than 70 inmates chose to be baptized, publicly declaring their faith in Christ.”

Ch. Daniel Odean, Correctional Ministries representative for the AG U.S. Missions Chaplaincy department, adds, “Pastor John understands reaching out with the simple method of a barbeque is impacting, but when seasoned with compassion and culminated with a Spirit-empowered gospel message, it becomes powerful and life-changing!”

Over the past three years, through the ministry of the OCC Campus and the Festival of Hope, more than 1,200 inmates have made decisions for Christ.

Through their years of faithful service at the OCC, Alarid says that he and the church have earned the respect of the warden and the head chaplain at the OCC. The success at the facility has also led to Alarid being invited to speak at other prison venues, including two in Nebraska as well as the infamous Rikers Island, home to New York City’s main jail complex.

“You know, it’s kind of funny — I used to spend a lot of money to stay out of prison,” Alarid says, then laughs, “now they pay me to go back in.”

Each Sunday, following the morning service at the FCC, a DVD is driven to the OCC church for an afternoon service that includes live music and worship, followed by the playing of the message Alarid gave earlier in the day.

Manuel Cordero, senior director of Chaplaincy Ministries, states, “God is using John’s terrible life journey for reaching lost souls and bringing them to himself. Freedom City Church and Hope Homes are plundering hell by their presentation of the gospel.”

“Years ago, the Lord called me to raise up an army out of the prisons that will go across this land and boldly preach the gospel of Jesus Christ with signs and wonders following,” Alarid says. “We are beginning to see that happen.”

Cordero states it clearly: “May God raise up more John Alarids is our prayer.”

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