ENID, Okla. — Each Sunday morning, 20-30 men and women gather at Grace Place, an annex of Emmanuel Enid, to have Bible study, sing contemporary worship songs and learn practical ways to apply biblical messages to everyday life.
The worship service isn’t unlike many other church groups in Enid, with one exception — almost all the worshipers are, or have been, incarcerated.
FreeWorld LifeGroup, founded by Emmanuel members and former inmates Chris Johnson and Justin Parrish, ministers primarily to people who are nearing release or have been released from Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) to help them reintegrate into society and find healing through biblical grace.
The ministry has its roots in “come to Jesus” experiences both Johnson and Parrish had while serving time.
Finding ‘lot of love’
Johnson, originally from the Oklahoma City area, came to Enid through DOC custody at Enid Community Correctional Center.
As a child, Johnson said he learned about Christ and the biblical concept of grace, but as he reached adulthood he fell away from the church and into crime.
It wasn’t until he arrived at Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite, in his late-30s, that he rediscovered the lessons of his youth about God’s unconditional love and rededicated his life to Christ.
“I knew the answer — I’d just run from it, over and over,” Johnson said.
By reconnecting with his faith, Johnson said he came to not only know but truly believe there is another life for him after incarceration — and he wanted to share that with others.
“As part of my growth in Christ I saw the need to reach out to others who had similar experiences to what I’ve had,” Johnson said. “I wanted to show people there is hope and there is the possibility of change through Christ.”
Johnson started attending Emmanuel while still in DOC custody through the church’s prison outreach ministry. He said the congregation’s open, welcoming embrace of him and other inmates gave him a passion to extend that grace to others.
“A lot of love was here,” he said, “and I knew this was part of the anointed path for me.”
Parrish also rekindled a passion for God while incarcerated. At 16 years old, Parrish said he knew he was called to ministry, but he “ran from God for 25 years.”
It wasn’t until he was 41, serving 21 months of a five-year sentence on drug-related charges, that Parrish said his “heart became captivated by God and his grace for me.”
He said the radical message of God’s love — that grace transcended his mistakes — transformed his outlook on life.
“Everything began to be so real for me, and I began to understand God’s love for me,” he said. “I started to understand that God can use us if we’ll just let him … that lit a fire under me, and it became important for me to tell others God loved them also.”
Parrish started leading a nightly worship group of 15-20 inmates while still in prison. That early work provided him a steep learning curve in ministry and pastoral care, he said.
“There’s nothing tougher than doing ministry in prison,” he said. “If you can learn to carry your Bible and use your Bible and work for God in prison, you can do all those things easier in the world outside the prison walls.”
His time in prison also gave Parrish firsthand experience with what he believes leads most people to addiction, crime and other forms of bondage. It’s a lack of connection to God’s love and grace, he said.
“I looked across the prison population at every prison I was at,” Parrish said, “and I truly believe the vast majority of the people in there are there because they’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places.”
When Parrish was released from DOC he set about building a new life. He and his wife, Summer, were married in 2017, settled in Enid and began attending Emmanuel.
Before long, he and Johnson started planning ways to share what they’d learned with others coming out of DOC custody. In May, 2018 that effort formed FreeWorld LifeGroup, which meets at 8:45 a.m. Sundays at Grace Place, 802 S. Cleveland.
Coming full circle
Videos, prepared Bible study lessons and guest speakers provide a Bible-based program similar to other churches. Practical help also is offered to help people coming out of incarceration connect with transportation, jobs, housing and other resources. Meeting those physical needs is important, but Johnson said for change to be real it needs to also meet spiritual needs.
“People say they got into trouble because they couldn’t find jobs, but I try to encourage them to look back and realize they’ve had great jobs,” Johnson said. “They haven’t had a hard time because they didn’t have a job. Something else was missing in their lives.”
Like Parrish, Johnson said that missing link is a genuine experience with God’s grace. Without that, Johnson said he’d likely still be in prison, or worse.
“Everything I’ve done in my life, all my prison time and my record, was adding up to a life without the chance of parole,” he said. “I’m supposed to be in prison right now. It’s through the grace of God that I’m here and able to share that message of God’s grace.”
Far too often, Johnson said former inmates fall back into old habits because they never encounter that grace.
“When people are released from prison they often don’t want to go into a church,” he said, “because they feel like they’re going to be judged.”
He said he wants the FreeWorld LifeGroup to be a link to those former inmates, to provide a judgment-free space to reconnect with God and society.
“I feel like we’re that missing piece to the puzzle and we can bring it full circle,” Johnson said. “People get out of prison, and they become overwhelmed. They just get lost and they need someone on their level to speak to.”
Parrish said the ministry is designed to be a way-point, not necessarily the final destination, for its congregants.
“This isn’t a denomination thing or an Emmanuel thing — this is a God thing,” Parrish said. “We want them to be planted and grow wherever is going to be best for them, and if that means they want to go to another denomination, we want that. We just want them to be firmly planted and walk with God.”
Emmanuel Enid lead pastor Wade Burleson said that mission of helping former inmates re-acclimate into society “is one of the most effective outreach and discovery tools we have.”
“I think it is fulfilling the commandment of Christ and the mission of Christ,” Burleson said, quoting a verse of Scripture from Matthew: “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Burleson said it’s a vital part of Emmanuel’s overall mission of sharing blessings and grace in the community.
“We just think this is what we should be doing,” he said. “The Lord has blessed Emmanuel. We have the highest attendance we’ve had, financially we’re doing well … the Lord has blessed us in extraordinary ways, and I think to be good stewards of what God has given to us, we have to be about the mission that Christ would have us be about.”
Burleson said he’s also been impressed with the ministry’s lay leadership and how it helps Emmanuel be a “go and tell” instead of a “come and see” church. But, what’s most important, he said, is the ways FreeWorld LifeGroup is positively changing lives.
“I get more encouragement from seeing these men and women whose lives have been transformed,” Burleson said. “It is the kind of encouragement every pastor should have … You’re seeing eternity in the hearts of people who have been transformed.”
Parrish and Johnson said that transformation is possible because of, not in spite of, their past experiences and the hard lessons those experiences gave them in God’s grace.
“God’s using our past, right now, to help define and positively change someone else’s future,” Parrish said.
“It’s all about Christ,” Johnson added, “and we want to share that message from a different perspective, give people different options and show people there is a life after all types of bondage.”