It’s not of the magnitude of the feeding of the 5,000 as chronicled in the New Testament, but one student’s service project had a hint of the miraculous this past holiday season.
by Samantha Sammis
Prisoners are arguably the most neglected population in the country, and for presumably good reason. In addition to holding a “normal” inmate population, Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, S.C., also maintains death row inmates for the entire state. Some of the individuals in this institution are incarcerated for crimes that society would deem to be the most unforgivable. For many of us, giving, loving and serving these people may not seem appropriate or even justifiable actions.
However, various members in the community of Charleston seem to disagree. What began as a simple service project through the Baptist Collegiate Ministry on campus turned into, in my opinion, a literal miracle of faith and immeasurable love.
For the last meeting of the fall semester, the Charleston BCM challenged different small groups to organize a service project. About six girls from my group attended the meeting that night, and we agreed that it would be a good idea to bake cookies for a local prison or detention center for the Christmas season. We drove to Walmart, bought maybe 20 packages of cookie dough and baked them that night. We put three to five cookies in a number of Ziploc bags and included Bible verses in each. I agreed to contact prison facilities the next day and figure out the best place to deliver the baked goods.
Professor Heath Hoffmann (chair, sociology and anthropology) provided me the contact information of the chaplains and wardens for prison facilities in the area. I called three facilities and left voicemails, explaining what we wanted to do and asking if it was permissible at the institutions.
The only person to call me back was the chaplain at Lieber. The chaplain and I talked for a while, and he was very receptive to us bringing cookies to the inmates for the holidays. The idea of including Bible verses in each of the bags was even better, and he further suggested specific passages that would be most applicable and encouraging for the inmates. I was so grateful that we were allowed to deliver the cookies, and he was so grateful that we were willing.
We went back and forth in excitement about the service project, and he asked if I would be able to make the delivery on Wednesday of the following week (I was calling on a Friday). I said, “absolutely!” As an afterthought, I asked him the number of individuals incarcerated at Lieber. After going through a few numbers out loud and including those on death row, the chaplain came up with the total: 1,450.
One thousand, four hundred and fifty people. The enormity of that figure did not faze me until my excited little self quickly agreed and hung up the phone – then, I froze in fear.
Nobody thought it was possible, including myself. Everyone I talked to about the service project either laughed or expressed disgust, discomfort or hilarity at the fact that someone would agree to something so absurd. But most said they would try to help as much as possible.
After the conversation with the prison chaplain, I attended a Christmas party for the BCM, and spread the word about the service project and the need for everyone’s help.
The following morning, I sent a Facebook message to the BCM members. The BCM director then told members of River Church in West Ashley about it, and people from that congregation agreed to help as well. I told all of my friends and asked for help from almost every person I encountered that weekend. I had interned at a local nonprofit organization the summer before, and asked some of the employees there to help. I was previously a nursery worker at a church downtown, so I called the nursery supervisor and asked for her help and if she could make our service project known to others in the congregation. I also told a family I baby-sit for and called two local Panera restaurants about maybe picking up their baked goods, because I knew they disposed of their products every night after closing.
Tuesday night was incredibly chaotic. All that day I was getting text messages and phone calls from people I hardly knew or didn’t know at all. I had strangers come up to me and say, “My friend told me you wanted to deliver cookies to the prison – here are some that I made.”
One girl drove to the grocery store 10 minutes after I talked to her, bought cookies and Ziploc bags, and dropped them off at my house that night. Another girl gave me money to buy cookie dough since she didn’t have time to bake or buy cookies.
It was absolutely unbelievable. People were even taking the time to put Bible verses in each of the bags. The girls that I baby-sit for made Popsicle-stick crosses that said, “Jesus Loves You,” and put them in each of their bags. Others typed out verses and attached ribbon to them. I could not believe the love and the thought that went into this and how God was working in the hearts of these people to give to the inmates.
I absolutely did not think we would have 1,450 Ziploc bags of cookies ready in time. The BCM house was filled with boxes and boxes and random bags of cookies with Post-it notes attached by other people with scribbled messages: “54 bags in here,” “19 bags in here,” “32 bags in here.” There were about a dozen people helping out Tuesday night with bagging and counting and baking. A few guys had been in there the day before organizing and packing cookies as well. One girl held a baking party that night and, at 11:30 p.m., delivered 88 bags of cookies. Another friend, who lived next door, brought by 100 bags of cookies around midnight.
On Wednesday morning, one of my friends agreed to help me pack the car and deliver the cookies. He came by around 7:15 a.m. with a giant box of cookies that he had made the previous night. He asked me how many bags we had, and I actually had no idea. The room was just filled with boxes and bags and Post-it notes. He told me to get ready while he counted. When I came back in the room, he just showed me a piece of paper with a number circled on it: 1,470.
I was speechless, overwhelmed and close to tears. We had 20 more bags of cookies than we needed. Each bag contained three to five cookies, which means we had collected almost 7,000 cookies in just four days.
We packed the cookies into my car and drove the 45 minutes to Lieber. We met the chaplain in the front of the facility and piled the cookies into a giant cart. I gave the chaplain a huge hug and thanked him for what he does at that prison and for letting us give to the inmates. He was grateful, and we exchanged goodbyes before I left.
For me, this entire experience was a miracle. I thanked all the people I could, but I know there are others who contributed that I don’t even know. I’m convinced that there is a reason why the only prison facility to call back was the largest in the state. I’m convinced there is a reason why people whom I have never met or previously spoken to jumped at the chance to contribute. I’m convinced that there is a reason why the outcome of 1,470 bags of cookies collected in four days exceeded everyone’s expectations and all rationality. That reason is a type of love that I believe can only be inspired by God.
No matter the nature of one’s spiritual or religious life, there is something truly humbling, challenging and life changing about caring for and serving those whom no one else is willing to help. In the Bible, Jesus calls us to love our enemies, forgive those who have sinned against us and love our neighbors as ourselves. This lesson applies even more so to the most neglected and rejected members of society, including the inmates at Lieber. I am thankful that this is an attitude that seems to permeate the Charleston community, and I hope our small example may open the hearts and minds of others to the immeasurable gift of simply reaching out to love and serve those in need.
– Samantha Sammis is a religious studies and sociology double major.
Illustration by Nathan Durfee