LA GRANGE — A religious congregation has for the first time formed inside the walls of a Kentucky prison, complete with a pastor, board and budget.
Religious groups of all kinds have visited prisoners to hold services for hundreds of years. But the Department of Corrections said the gathering at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange is a first in this state.
At a service earlier this year, a band played traditional gospel ballads and prisoners heard an impassioned sermon about the gospel crossing racial and gender divisions, The Courier-Journal reported.
"It's more than attending worship services on a Friday night," said the Rev. Dean Bucalos, the founding pastor. "We're forming a congregation."
The Luther Luckett Christian Church formed in January and has about 60 inmates as members. It's funded by its denominational affiliate, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
The church began meeting one Friday night a month, but so many outside volunteers wanted to join that members started meeting every two weeks.
At a service in September, about two dozen volunteers from area churches brought in everything from soft drinks and snack foods to guitars and amplifiers as they passed through guard stations and security doors.
The visitors sat among inmates in plastic chairs, beneath the fluorescent lights of the sparse chapel, sharing Bibles and hymnals.
"This church is awesome," said inmate Robert Ray. "We've got a lot of different backgrounds here, a lot of people who have never been to church. But I like to bring my brothers with me to this service because it is so spiritual and uplifting."
Inmate Gary Ross said he loves the experience of "meeting new people. It's just wonderful."
Bucalos said the services give inmates a rare "sense of normalcy."
"They're sitting next to somebody from the outside," he said. "They're not being judged, they're not being asked what they're in for, they're not being confronted about their faith, they're just sitting there in worship, they're sharing a hymnal, they're celebrating communion together."
Bucalos acknowledged that working with future released inmates poses potential problems for churches.
Many of the inmates at Luther Luckett, a medium-security facility with 1,000 inmates, have been convicted of sexual or other violent crimes.
Churches have become increasingly vigilant about protecting members from sex offenders, who are restricted in where they can live and work. So congregations would need training on dealing with such former inmates, Bucalos said.