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I was a man of faith when I came to prison.

I didn’t know how faith differed from jailhouse religion, until I came to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division.

Palestine, Texas, was a transfer unit. Second day there, I received an administrative request to see the unit chaplain. I had not requested to see him. Curious as to why he wanted to see me, I went to his office. The chaplain seated behind a desk littered with inmate requests and used Bibles explained to me why he called me into his office.

He said, “Mr. Shafer, I had a dream last night. And in that dream I was told that I would meet a man of strong faith. That I was to get this man up in front of the other prisoners and let him give sermons.” 

I asked, “But sir, what’s that got to do with me?” 

He said that I was that man. I looked at the stack of prisoner requests on the chaplain’s desk, asking to be part of the chaplain’s worship team. He said, “I know what you’re thinking. Why you, right?” Before I could respond, he said he was doing what he was told to do in the dream.

The next weekend, I helped set up chairs for the service. The chaplain approached me and said the man who was going to give the sermon cancelled and no one else was available. He told me I was going to give the sermon. 

Literally, I was floored. Here I am, a prisoner with no history of any experience speaking to large groups of people, except for when I was serving my country while in the U.S. Army. 

The prisoners arrived and were seated, 400 men in all. The chaplain told them the story of his dream. Then he introduced me. I had no time to prepare or to choose my topic. After musical hymns by the choir, the room went silent. I walked up to the pulpit, looked down at my Bible and closed my eyes.

I began to speak on the difference between true faith and religion. My voice was bold. Prisoners who would normally be talking with their friends had their eyes fixed on me. I was nervous, yet, something was urging me on to speak.

I illustrated how faith is something that a person lives every day, while religion is something done once or twice a week by attending church. Eyes widened in disbelief, including my own, but I continued. 

I stated, “Faith is not about believing. It’s about trusting in the Father’s knowledge and believing that his commandments, not just ten, but all 613 of them, apply to our lives. Trust in the fact that ‘he might preserve us alive, as we are this day.’”

I am descended from the nation of Israel, more specifically, from the tribe of Judah. I have faith in the father’s wisdom. I know too well that his commandments and law can not be done by everyone. They are designed as situational and apply to a wide variety of circumstances. No one, not even our messiah and savior, Yashua (Jesus) was able to do them all. I advised the men that the infamous sacrificial laws were not meant to be permanent. 

The men were in shock. Most were Christians who had forsaken the relevance of the Father’s Laws. I explained in the boldest voice I could muster, “God’s Commandments and Laws are made so that we know how to love him, how to love each other, and to work in harmony with the rest of his creation.”

Shock and awe filled the room. Many believed that God’s Laws were not required. What they failed to understand that without these laws, we’d live in a world full of chaos, a world we are not far off from now.

Many prisoners will only be pious on the days designated by their religion when they attend church, instead of living each day by faith in the Father and the necessity of his commands. After prisoners go back to their dorms, wings and cells, they do whatever is right in their own eyes. They pretend to be religious, but when they leave prison, they throw their Bibles in a convenient trash barrel. They go back into the free world and do exactly the same thing they did that landed them in prison in the first place.

Jailhouse religion. To this day, I really don’t understand why the chaplain gave me a message, nor do I fully understand why that message came to me. What I do understand is that the message may have been meant for me, rather than to those I was speaking to.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Richard Shafer

Richard Shafer is a writer incarcerated in Texas.