Judge E.C. Burnett III saw heartbreaking cycles of recidivism as a trial judge and associate judge of the South Carolina Supreme Court. He saw how crime devastated families, and Burnett took advantage of his opportunities to speak truth and hope from the bench, limited though he was by his position.

When Burnett retired from the bench in 2007 he joined other men from Mount Calvary Presbyterian Church in Roebuck, South Carolina, leading a Bible study every Monday evening at Tyger River Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in nearby Enoree.

Mount Calvary calls itself the Lighthouse in the Grove, and for more than 15 years men from the “Lighthouse” have held forth the Gospel in one of the darkest places, offering love, acceptance, and hope to those who feel hopeless and unlovable.

A Passing Glance and a Providential Phone Call

The idea for the Bible study began in 2000, with a prison chaplain who, on her commute to Tyger River, noticed a banner outside Mount Calvary advertising the upcoming Vacation Bible School.

The chaplain called the church. Fred Thrailkill, a retired army officer who had a heart for helping,  answered her call. The chaplain asked Thrailkill if anyone from Mount Calvary could put together a five-night Bible study for the Tyger River inmates. Thrailkill, who already volunteered with a local substance-abuse recovery ministry, readily agreed.

According to Thrailkill, the team from Mount Calvary enjoyed the five-night study so much that when the chaplain asked them to come back each Monday, they agreed without hesitation.

In January 2000, Mount Calvary assembled a group of eight laymen to take turns assisting with a Bible study inside the prison. The group still consists of eight laymen, including some of the original volunteers, who come to Tyger River every Monday night.

The meetings open with a volunteer leading a devotional, reading Scripture, and praying — allowing time for inmates to share prayer requests. Then another volunteer teaches a Scripture passage.

On average 40 men attend the Monday-evening study, with that number sometimes swelling to 100 or dwindling to 10.

Setting the Prisoners Free

Burnett doesn’t mind if the inmates know he is a former judge. Occasionally he even meets someone that he once sentenced.

“I have no concerns talking with those convicted of crimes. It never bothered me at all if they learned who I was or what I did during my career,” he said. Burnett is just happy to have an opportunity to talk at length with inmates about the hope and truth that he could mention only briefly from the bench.

Most people outside the prison system see prisoners as individuals getting what they rightly deserve, and Burnett does not dispute that the inmates are guilty. “But what people don’t think about is that 95 percent [of inmates] will be released from prison, and they are going to come back to somebody’s community. Do you want someone who has been in prison to come out a more effective criminal, or do you want him … to come out with the knowledge of Christ Jesus?”

Prison inmates are refreshingly unconcerned about outward appearances. They are literally wearing their failings courtesy of their orange jumpsuits. So Bible teachers can dispense with niceties and get to the heart of the Gospel, something the inmates hunger to hear. Burnett said many of these men have nothing to their names, so they cling to the hope of the Gospel — the reality that they belong to Jesus.

Asked if there are any challenges to prison ministry, Burnett couldn’t think of any — other than the disappointment of sometimes being barred from the facility because of a prison lockdown or guard shortages.

The Mount Calvary teams work hard to let the inmates know they are loved. Burnett is proud of how the Bible study leaders care for the inmates, sometimes against the guards’ wishes.

“[The guards didn’t] want us to hug them, but we still do that. We can welcome these men just like, or better than, most churches on the outside welcome visitors,” he said.

When inmates from the Bible study are paroled, Thrailkill sometimes meets them at the prison gates and takes them to a meal at Waffle House. He helps them find a place to live or gets them checked into a halfway house, walking with them as they take the next step back into society.

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Thrailkill happily shares stories of inmates who left the prison to pursue productive lives and help in other prison ministries. He keeps in touch with a former inmate who now operates a halfway house for other paroled inmates.

Burnett is working with other community leaders to raise funds for a permanent chapel on the prison campus where the Monday-evening Bible study can meet. He is assembling a leadership team to raise the $700,000 needed for the project.

Burnett longs for other churches to get involved in prison ministries in their communities. He sees it as a natural extension of the Great Commission and a wise community investment.

Every year at Christmas, Mount Calvary sponsors a dinner for a dormitory of inmates, about 125 men. The church caters the dinner, and the church’s women make and serve desserts. It demonstrates to the inmates that the Monday-evening volunteers are not the only ones at Mount Calvary committed to them; they have the support of the entire church.

When inmates from the Monday-evening Bible study are paroled, some visit the Lighthouse in the Grove before moving on to other churches and other communities.

And for those who cannot visit the Lighthouse, Thrailkill, Burnett, and the other men of Mount Calvary will continue to teach them about the Light of the world who died for them.

“We are just going to keep on keeping on until the good Lord comes,” Thrailkill said. “It has made us stronger brothers in the Lord.”