Thursday, December 18, 2003

Do you hear what I hear? It's redemption

Peter Bronson

Fred Hyatt has been locked up in the Hamilton County Justice Center's maximum-security cellblock every week for more than 20 years. By choice.

Every Saturday morning, he leads a Bible study for 25 to 40 inmates. This year, he has them singing Christmas carols.

Hyatt, access and safety director at God's Bible School & College in Mount Auburn, teamed up with senior student Kimberly Easley to train an inmate choir this year. At rehearsals, 18 to 35 prisoners learned Christmas carols - and a few other things.

It's purely voluntary - no rewards. "None whatsoever," said Hyatt. "If they can't do it for the glory of God and to turn around their own lives, I don't want 'em."

When choir certificates were passed out this year, one prisoner began to shake and tremble, Hyatt said. "You could tell by his nose and face that he had had a lot of liquor under his belt, but it wasn't the DT's. He said, 'This is the first time in my life that anybody's recognized me for anything.' "

Sheriff Simon Leis has called Easley's inmate choir an example of "faith in action." Corrections Director Joe Schmitz said, "They do a fantastic job."

It's all part of the prison ministry program that Hyatt has managed for decades at the Bible college. And that's part of the mission at the school that sits on Young Street, where it was founded in 1900.

It's not a big red or blue square on the map like the University of Cincinnati or Xavier. But the Bible school is full and has a waiting list for students in its K-12 charter schools. Although more than half of the 200 students come from economically depressed homes, they score 17 percent above the national average on tests.

There are 252 students enrolled in the college, from 25 denominations and 15 nations. Most major in ministerial education, elementary education or music education.

Music is the soundtrack. At chapels, students gather to sing hymns and solos, lifting blended voices like a woven prayer, as sunshine spills through stained-glass windows in the cavernous assembly hall.

The lyrics are scripture.

"We prepare young people to minister to this world, but live a holy, dedicated life with Christ and have a personal relationship with Him,'' said Jack Hooker, vice president for advancement.

"We teach them to live out Christian testimony in the marketplace,'' Hooker said.

That's where the prison ministry comes in.

Students participate in outreach in three Over-the-Rhine chapels. Some join the Hyatt team that offers Bible study, choir and Sunday services to inmates.

Hooker explains the success of the school this way: "There is a general spiritual hunger for real faith and real commitment. These kids come to us committed to make a difference. The strain is that materialism bids high. They're not coming into ministry to make money."

Hyatt said he sees the same hunger in prisoners. He can count 200 who have turned their lives around with God's help. "Most seem to know God can forgive them, but most cannot forgive themselves for some of the hideous things they have done," he said.

So his message is simple: "God didn't want you here. God wants you to change your life."

It sounds almost like a miracle - but so does a choir of hard-core felons singing Christmas carols in the county jail.


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