Second Chances

Lemon Creek chaplain tends to captive flock in state prison

Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2006

Anyone can be redeemed, anyone can be saved. God will meet you wherever you are, even if you are in a cage.

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As prison chaplain George Sturm walks through the halls of Lemon Creek Correctional Center, a place that can be devoid of hope, his message is clear - his God is the God of second chances.

"There's never anybody that's hopeless," he said. "God can turn anyone around."

While others shun murders, rapists, pedophiles and thieves, Sturm makes friends with them.

That wasn't always the case. Sturm grew up in Wisconsin, and ministered to several churches there. Because of his wife's job, he eventually moved to Juneau, where a friend encouraged him to go into prison ministry.

After research and prayer, Sturm started working at the state prison in June. He saw it as a place to witness the power of God firsthand.

"(I wanted) the opportunity to see lives changed, to see big changes take place in people's lives."

From Joseph in the Old Testament to the apostle Paul in the New Testament, the Bible is replete with stories of people who have been imprisoned. The Bible exhorts God as one who frees prisoners. Followers of Judaism and Christianity alike are directed to visit those in prison.

Mike Ensch, chaplaincy services administrator for the Alaska Department of Corrections, said most people get involved in prison ministries because they feel inexplicably but powerfully drawn to working there.

"There has always been a very distinct sense of calling to this ministry," he said. "Because of their love of God, they embrace a redemptive perspective. They believe there is hope for anybody, they're driven by the unconditional love of God that they've experienced in their own life."

Ask just about anyone involved in corrections, and they will tell you how valuable prison chaplains can be. Confessor, counselor, confidant, friend - pastors fill many roles. Prisoners often see ministers as being somehow above the power struggles that take place behind bars.

"They have a different mission and a different perspective, a chaplain is a calming influence. They offer a sense of hope," Ensch said.

Often the biggest part of a prison chaplain's job isn't services or Bible studies.

"Many times it's just a powerful presence of a chaplain," Ensch said. "The chaplain has a very unique role of being that person with hope."

Sturm goes to the high-traffic areas of Lemon Creek, so as many people as possible can see him.

"I like to make my presence known in the dining hall," he said.

According to Ensch, there are 25 chaplains working in Alaska's prison system.

There also is a virtual army of volunteers who conduct Bible studies and counseling. Lemon Creek has about 20 people who regularly volunteer.

There are three chaplains paid by the state; the others are funded by private donations. The donations to run the program, roughly $400,000, are managed by Alaska Correctional Ministries.

Ensch said that although the bulk of those seeking religious counseling are Christians, chaplains arrange services for other believers.

The road that led David Goldsmith, 41, and John Peters, 19, to Lemon Creek wasn't easy. Both had been in and out of jail several times.

Goldsmith was sentenced for assault. He said he broke a man's jaw for touching his teenage daughter inappropriately.

Peters, who dropped out of high school and started doing drugs, was sent to Lemon Creek after a string of car thefts. Goldsmith will be released in 90 days. Peters still has a year left on his sentence.

Both men say they take responsibility for their crimes and are determined not to make the same mistakes again.

Repentance, they said, is an essential step to reform. And both say they reached that conclusion under the guidance of Sturm and an intense religious program offered in October at Lemon Creek.

"I think if you didn't have the chaplains in here, there'd be disarray in the prison system," Goldsmith said.

"You have to take responsibility," Peters said. "If you don't, you're just denying yourself a new beginning."

Goldsmith said he believes God allowed him to be placed at Lemon Creek for a reason.

"I've dodged God's hand forever, and this was his way of closing the playing field."

Goldsmith wants to take what he has learned in prison and counsel teens to avoid the mistakes he made. Peters, who got his GED at Lemon Creek, said he wants to spend time with his family, and continue to "grow in God."

As uplifting as Sturm's job may sound, there's a harder side to being a prison pastor. He's sometimes seen as the bringer, not of hope, but of bad news.

When a family member dies; when a spouse calls it quits; when a child is sick, Sturm is the one who usually sits down with an inmate and tells them.

He also sees many prisoners leave Lemon Creek full of hope for freedom, only to return weeks or months later. Still, Sturm is resolute.

"Jesus said he came to help those who need help," he said. "All the inmates in here have problems."

• Will Morris can be contacted at

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