Woman released from life sentence a part of prison church plant

by Grace Thornton/The Alabama Baptist, posted Tuesday, August 14, 2018 (one year ago)

EDITOR'S NOTE: See additional story on prison ministry below this article.

ALICEVILLE, Ala. (BP) -- Sometimes help comes from unexpected places -- Gary Farley can attest to that.

Alice Marie Johnson was released from prison after serving 20 years of a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense. But not before helping start a thriving prison ministry.
 
Six years ago, Farley knew he needed somebody to lend a hand in planting a church at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI), the new women's prison in Aliceville, Ala., but he didn't know exactly who.

He had thought he might recruit some volunteers from Pickens Baptist Association, where he served as director of missions at the time. He found a pianist, a worship leader and some other folks willing to go in and hold a regular church service.

But as the first women began arriving at the prison camp in late 2012, the warden told Farley another plan might be more effective.

"He told me that church works better if you use people from the prison rather than carrying church in from the outside," said Farley, retired Pickens Baptist Association director of missions. "He told me there would be folks on the inside who can do church really well."

So Farley decided to take his advice -- a move that would change his life and his ministry.

Getting involved

"I began to try to get the women involved in planning the services," he said. "They were able to provide quality music and we drew on their talents to start the church."

One of the musicians said she had some friends who were being transferred in from Tallahassee who could help out too. One of those was Alice Marie Johnson, a grandmother who had served more than 20 years of a life sentence for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense.

"Alice was really good at putting together dramas," Farley said. "I found her to be just a charming lady and a very committed Christian. She wrote and directed a passion play and put it on several times. It was just amazing."

Johnson had a knack for pulling together the different cultures and gifts inside the prison camp, Farley said. She gathered some Hispanic women to sing "Via Dolorosa," and she put together a variety of music and even included humor, he said.

And over the years, with Johnson and the other women working alongside Farley and other chaplains and volunteers, the congregations that met within the walls of FCI became the biggest church in the county. More than 500 or 600 inmates gather for worship each week, some in the camp, some in the main prison and some in a Spanish-language service.

That's a miracle, Farley said. And they've seen more miracles happen. One of them was Johnson's recent release.

In 2016, Johnson published a piece on her plight. Her family and job life had been good for years, but in 1989 she and her husband divorced, and not too long after, her youngest son was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Under the weight of that burden, Johnson made some poor decisions, she wrote.

"I want this part to be clear: I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs."

During that time, Johnson was a telephone mule, passing messages between the distributors and sellers.

"I am only one of thousands of first-time, nonviolent offenders given mandatory and lengthy prison terms after committing crimes under financial distress," she wrote. "In 1996, I was given a death sentence without sitting on death row. I was convicted as a first-time, nonviolent drug offender to life behind bars in federal prison."

Since she was convicted, the laws governing her crime have changed, and if she were convicted today, her life might look very different, she wrote.

In 2016, President Barack Obama granted clemency to 231 people -- many of them in jail on drug-related charges -- but Johnson wasn't among them.

It was hard to stay hopeful, she wrote. "For 20 years I have been incarcerated and I won't lie -- it's hard to keep the hope of freedom alive for that long. But my faith in God has carried me this far."

Farley said they have prayed often over the past few years for her release and were disappointed when it didn't happen in 2016.

"But she felt like God's timing was perfect and that things would come out all right," Farley said.

Then in 2017, Johnson's case caught the attention of reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, who got an attorney on Johnson's behalf. She pleaded Johnson's case in a meeting with President Trump, and he commuted her sentence. In early June, Johnson got a call from West, who told her she could go home.

'On time'

"God is always on time," Farley said. "If she had been released earlier, she might not have the platform she has now. She understands that and that God's plans are always smarter than ours."

And it's possible more people came to faith because of Johnson's continued presence there at FCI, Farley said. "One of the neat things that Alice did, she involved non-Christians in some of the passion plays she put on, and some of them were saved."

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Farley continues prison ministry after retirement

By Grace Thornton/The Alabama Baptist

Gary Farley says the whole fabric of his ministry looks different because the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) was built in his area a few years back.

"In reading Matthew 25, I felt like I had tried to do what I could with the feeding people, clothing them and giving them water part, but I hadn't done anything about the visiting people in prison part," Farley said. "I knew we had to do something."

He hadn't known what to expect. He was committed to the task, but he thought he might meet a group of tough, hard-to-relate-to inmates.

Passion for ministry

What he found instead was a group of women he quickly cared about and a passion for prison ministry that would continue well into his retirement years.

It's evidenced by the way things looked at his last annual meeting as Pickens Baptist Association director of missions in October 2017.

"The Lord allowed the choir from the prison camp to come and sing at that meeting," he said.

And at his retirement reception, one of the women in the choir -- an opera singer -- sang "Amazing Grace" while Farley played the harmonica.

Farley has seen several "real" churches planted in the prison, and he's seen dozens of women baptized. He has taught theology classes inside the walls of the prison and seen women go on to disciple others.

"We have 14 nationalities in the prison now, and we've had people from many of them baptized -- Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian," Farley said. "Some of the ladies are ... from Central America, and we have tried to encourage them to be missionaries when they head back to wherever they are going."

Pickens Association adopted a resolution during its annual meeting thanking him for his 20 years of service, a ministry that was "for such a time as this."

"We thank him for his leadership ability, his preaching and teaching that have meant so much to our association, and we thank him for the vision that he has had in preparing us and the future association to serve the Lord in the prison field at Aliceville," the resolution stated.

In his retirement Farley hasn't stepped back from prison ministry.

"It has been amazing to see what God has done, and I feel like God had me here to do this," Farley said. "It's a good way to finish up."

Grace Thornton is a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist (www.thealabamabaptist.org), newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention.
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