FULTON, Ky. (KT) — Pastoring during the coronavirus has presented many challenges, and in some cases interrupted normal pastoral duties, such as hospital or nursing home visits.
But Stephen Cavness, pastor of Fulton First Baptist Church, has not had his ministry to jail inmates interrupted by the virus.
While jail visits are not allowed as a result of COVID-19, Cavness can meet with inmates for teaching and counseling opportunities because he is a deputized staff member of the Fulton County Detention Center.
His schedule of having a worship service every other week has been put on hold during the coronavirus, but he's still been able to pray with inmates, offer grief counseling when needed or answer Bible questions. All that’s needed for those one-on-one times is for an inmate to fill out a form requesting a meeting. Cavness goes to the jail at least once a week to pick up forms from inmates.
Cavness started an every-other-week Bible study at the jail in October 2018, then was asked to be the jail chaplain, a position he has filled since January 2019. In that role, he is available to be an advisor for not only inmates but jail staff as well. In that role, he went through jail staff training and was deputized.
Prior to the pandemic, Fulton County Detention Center housed more than 500 inmates, but that census is down in the 300 range now.
“I’m available for one-on-one counseling, prayers, or spiritual and Bible questions,” he said. “There are times when the jail needs to give a death notice to an inmate when a family member or close friend has died, and I help deliver that news.”
Evidence of the impact of his jail ministry is seen in the instance of an inmate who had an opportunity to be released months before completing his sentence. “Because the Lord did a work in his life, he voluntarily stayed six months longer so he could finish discipling some guys he was working with.”
Since beginning his chaplaincy, he has baptized a number of individuals, but he tries to determine if the conversion is genuine. “I don’t just baptize someone because they want to be baptized,” he said. “Jailhouse religion is a real thing. I’m not unreasonable, but I do more than just ask if they want to go to heaven. I talk to the correctional officers and jailer to see if a change is evident in that person’s life. I’ve baptized a handful who seem to be genuinely converted.”
Building relationships in the jail allows Cavness opportunities to share the gospel.
He met recently with one inmate who revealed that he was “terrified he would get in trouble” and wind up back in jail. He asked Cavness, “Tell me what to do so I won’t be back in here.” That question “left me wide open to share the gospel.”
The worship services often find inmates giving testimonies about the change in their lives. “They tell how they pray for other inmates. Some have started praying for guards to be saved,” Cavness noted.
While coronavirus problems have arisen in a number of jails and prison, Cavness said he was thankful that no inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.