By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
A series of three locked fences led the way to the chapel.
About 150 women stood in a single-file line as they waited to pray.
Each woman wore a white jumpsuit with orange cuffs. Most of them also wore a green overcoat, for the night wind was cold.
When the clock chimed seven, armed guards issued the order for the lot of women to move.
As each woman entered the chapel, she was no longer a 'female offender,' the official term for those imprisoned at the Hilltop unit of the Gatesville prison. To the man standing on the far side of the chapel, near the Crucifix, each woman was a child of God. That man was their chaplain, Wallace Nelson. Instructed not to stray from the group, the women kept their arms straight at their sides while the guards directed them to their seats. The chapel floor looked more like that of a high school gymnasium. Instead of pews, there were about a hundred rows of folding chairs.
'Once you're seated, stay seated,' said one of the guards. 'Do not stand up until you're told.'
Stern and strict, that's how the Feb. 17 worship service started at Hilltop.
But the austere mood evaporated once the guards retreated into the shadows. The women relaxed, most saying they were ready to worship.
'We come from all over the United States,' said Terry Strom of Temple, guitarist of the guest worship band. 'And there is no place we'd rather be than here - in jail - with you.'
From Discipleship Unlimited, a national prison ministry, Strom stressed the words 'in jail' as his eyes darted from wall to wall, searching for a guard.
That's all it took for the laughter to start.
'We had to get them awake and alive, ready to receive God's word,' Strom said after the service. 'And humor always works.'
The laughs, ranging from giggly to deep throated, didn't stop until the inmates' 9 p.m. curfew. The Discipleship team used music, jokes and silliness to tell the inmates about God's love for everyone - even those in that Hilltop chapel.
Strom started to say a prayer, but partner Dave Pietrangelo stole the audience's attention. With a goofy grin, Pietrangelo danced before the giant Crucifix.
Without a word, Pietrangelo led a clapping game reminiscent of Simon Says. As he changed the tempo and pace of the claps, the audience struggled to keep up, but at the end of each round, at least 20 people missed the sequence.
At the end of the game, the inmates, a couple of guards and the chaplain were laughing.
Strom then took command of the microphone.
'Settle down now. Let's use this time for worship,' Strom said, picking up his guitar. 'Feel free to show your love for the Lord. Even though you can't walk -'
'They can walk, Terry,' interrupted the female lead vocalist, Ginny Shepherd. 'They do have that ability.'
'Ha. Ha.,' Terry said while the inmates laughed. 'OK, so you can walk. You just can't walk right now.'
The joke inspired by the guards' no-standing order was well received. The laughter lasted well into Strom's first worship song.
In his presentation, Strom told several jokes while discussing his past struggles with drug addiction.
'But I didn't get caught - like some of you in here,' Strom said in jest, his eyes darting from side to side. 'But I very easily could have.'
After almost 20 years of ministering to prisoners, Strom said humor by way of laughing at his own mistakes is the most effective way to relate to them.
'It's all about keeping it real,' Strom explained. 'We all struggle, and we all mess up. 'If you're real, you're not hiding. They can always tell if you're not being straight up.'
Pastor Gary DeSalvo from Temple Bible Church agreed.
'To communicate truth is to laugh at our own shortcomings,' DeSalvo said. 'The spiritual life should be enjoyed. God is joy.'
DeSalvo gave the sermon Feb. 17 at Hilltop.
Bible studies conducted by J.A.I.L. Ministries in Temple often trigger 'a few laughs here and there,' said Steve Cannon, executive director of the prison ministry.
'Nothing says you have to be stodgy while giving God's word,' Cannon said.
When applied to prison ministry, humor has a vital role, said Lorie Willis, senior warden at the Hilltop unit.
'Humor is common ground,' Willis said. 'Female offenders will retain the message and have a better chance at applying it to their lives upon release in the community.'
The warden said she's seen 'the positive cycle' happen.
During Discipleship Unlimited's worship service Feb. 17 at Hilltop, volunteer Kathy Morgan said laughing is the sign of a content heart.
'Humor can lead us to the forgiveness of others,' Morgan said. 'It might take a while, but it comes.'
Morgan shared a story of personal tragedy to emphasize that message.
'A man sits on death row because he murdered my mother,' she said. 'For my own peace, I had to forgive him. When I approached him, he told me to go to hell. But that didn't matter.'
Morgan said his bitterness was just one of God's signs.
'That man needed prayer. I saw it in his face,' she said. 'Once I got to where being teased about forgiving my mom's killer was OK, I knew I had forgiven him. Once I could laugh at it, my heart was free.'
Pastor DeSalvo’s sermon about Jonah concluded the Hilltop service. He managed to crack more than a few smiles.
'Jonah wanted to live life his own way, but God had a different plan, a better plan,' DeSalvo said. 'So God puts him in the belly of the whale. Let's face it, that ain't a good place to be. Think of the guts and stink.'
The inmates roared with laughter.
'But you know what that's like,' DeSalvo said. 'You're caught fugitives in a place you don't want to be. As true as God didn't forget Jonah, God has not forgotten you.'