Spiritual mountains at Parchman

Published 11:30 am Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Delta was still flat like it was in the Delta State days, but on this day in February of 2024, Othel and I were gifted with a mountaintop experience and in a most unlikely place — Parchman Penitentiary.

An invitation was sent to members of the prison ministry at our church to attend the official celebration of the opening of a new chapel just completed on the prison grounds in Parchman. When I read the details, I thought it had to be a mistake. The featured speaker was Jim Cymbala, pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York, and members of the famous Tabernacle choir would be singing.

Could this be THE Jim Cymbala that wrote the powerful book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire? I purchased the book years ago, never dreaming that I would someday sit on the front row of a prison chapel with him.

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After checking on more details, I realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I insisted that Othel experience it, too. We had listened to the choir’s music on YouTube, so he was excited about hearing them in person.

We arrived at the expansive grounds and passed through gates and guards to get to the chapel. Some officials were gathered outside the chapel along with some of the inmates wearing green stripes. We were greeted like special guests and escorted to front row seating. Othel whispered,  “Are you sure about this? Shouldn’t we be in the back?”

I sat down, third seat from the aisle on the front row. I was about to meet Jim Cymbala and hear heavenly, worshipful music. Othel didn’t question my obvious resolve and joined me on the fourth seat.

Some of the prison officials gathered near us and introduced themselves. Commissioner Cain of the Mississippi Department of Corrections spoke to us, and I told him about my connection with the prison ministry in Pearl. We knew several of the same people, and he shared a bit about how the building of churches on the prison grounds along with formation of prisoner staffing were changing the climate of Mississippi prisons.

One of the officials instructed the guards to open the chapel doors, allowing the flood of inmates to fill the large chapel. The Commissioner gave a brief welcome, commended the inmates that designed and built the chapel and then introduced Pastor Cymbala and the choir that filed to the stage area.

Approximately 25 choir members, musicians and sound crew led everyone in attendance to a celestial experience. The choir, like the Tabernacle members, were a diverse group representing many nations, but their praises blended for the adoration of the one and only Savior. Many of the inmates lifted their hands in praise; others stood.

Pastor Cymbala spoke tenderly as he expressed his sincere honor in being there and filling this newly erected chapel with praise and worship. He spoke gentle, healing words to the rows of attentive inmates. He administered the healing balm of God’s Word to needy listeners, and evidenced by the invitation response, many received the promise of new life and freedom in Christ.

As we left the service, we walked past razor wire, fences, more guards and metal doors, but all the evidence of incarceration was overshadowed with the beauty of hope. Even my excitement about meeting and hearing Pastor Cymbala and the choir was eclipsed by the powerful, life changing movement of the Holy Spirit that we witnessed and felt. There’s no doubt that the Delta has spiritual mountains at Parchman.

Letters to Camille Anding may be sent to P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven, MS 39602.