When he pulled off the road and stopped at the 66 Station in Rockport, Texas, a few summers ago, Bill Fitts ran into the last person he expected to see.
“My wife and I were going on a vacation,” he recalled. “We were taking a little girl who is autistic with us. She’s a really neat kid—eleven years old. And the ladies said, ‘We need to make a pit stop,’ so I pulled off at a gas station.”
While the girls disappeared into the restrooms, Fitts wandered through the store in search of a snack. No sooner did he turn and start for the cash register when a voice burst from behind it—“Bill!”—and a huge, muscular figure charged toward him.
It was Bobby, a member of the veterans’ club at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, which Fitts, a professor of English at Union College, attends every other Friday.
“I started to hold out my hand because I recognized him, but he said, ‘That’s not good enough.’ I thought he was going to crush my ribs,” Fitts smiled.
Bobby was thrilled to meet the family, who had heard stories of him but never had the chance to see him outside the prison. And when he turned to the little girl, Bobby got down to eye level with her, saying, “You like ice cream? You come over here and you choose what kind you want. You’re not going to be charged for this—this is on the house.”
Now any time they travel through that area, they stop to visit Bobby. “He’s kept his record clean since he’s been out [of prison],” said Fitts. “He’s making a life for himself. That’s what it’s all about.”
Finding a need
Dr. Fitts’ first experience with prison ministry started a little over five years ago, during a time when he prayed for God to give him a ministry outside of the Adventist community.
“I love my Adventist brothers and sisters,” he said. “But I just felt impressed that I needed to do something out in the community, and I didn’t know what.”
He was at a banquet for the Nebraska Vietnam Vets’ annual meeting, playing guitar for singer Chris Noel, the actress who he had played for while she toured Vietnam entertaining the troops during the war.
It was during this reunion God sent him an answer.
“While we were singing for these guys and their families, I noticed that people were starting to cry at the tables,” he remembered. “And my initial response was, ‘We don’t sound that bad!’”
But they were not the only ones impressed with his musical skills that night. A few weeks later, he received an invitation to bring his guitar into the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
“We went in the afternoon, after classes, and I just sat down and pulled the guitar out and started singing these old hippie songs from the 60s and the early 70s, and these guys started singing with me,” said Fitts. “I noticed that some of the inmates—not all—began to loosen up.” He started to wonder whether this was indeed the ministry God planned for him, so he decided to undergo the training to become a volunteer.
“I went in with the attitude of ‘I’ll use the typical Adventist method: I’m a Seventh-day Adventist, I’m a member of the church, and I hope that we can have some very good religious conversations,’” he said. “It did not work at all. In fact, I turned some of the inmates off. Some of them didn’t even want to talk to me.”
After failed meetings like these, Fitts retreated to his pickup in the parking lot and share a tense prayer with God. “I’d say, ‘Lord, this is not working. Why did you send me here?’ Now I’m blaming it on the Lord,” he chuckled.
But no small voice answered.
“It was patience that He was trying to teach me,” Fitts said. “And that the typical method we use doesn’t work with inmates. So one night I just walked in and played the guitar. And gradually, from across the room, guys started walking over and pulling their chairs up around me, and started singing with me.”
It wasn’t long before Fitts realized God had even more to teach him. On the nights when he wasn’t able to bring along his guitar, he learned to ask open-ended questions and sit back while the inmates answered, and not to insert “heavy spiritual discussions or well-this-is-how-I-would-do-it types of ideas.”
Fitts has even since integrated this lesson into his teaching. “Because it makes it more of a discussion, it’s not a I-know-all-the-answers-let-me-pour-this-in-your-head method. That doesn’t work with students, and it does not work with inmates.
“It was an education for me,” Fitts added. “It was very humbling too. The Lord was telling me, ‘I’m the one who does all of this. Through you. I need to keep your hat size the same every day. If you’re going to be any use to me at all, you’re going to have to cooperate with me.’ It helped me to better see who I am, sometimes in a light that shows I’m not that great of a person. When we have those moments, those are the times when God can say, ‘Okay, now I can use you.’”
Fitts felt a camaraderie with Bible characters who were forced to learn similar lessons. “It’s like Moses! ‘You expect me to lead all these people out of Egypt? Forget it. I can’t do that.’ And God says, ‘Okay, now he’s ready. Now he’s ready.’”
Building lasting friendships
Since then, Fitts has volunteered at the Nebraska State Penitentiary for several years. Through his time there, he has made five close friendships and experienced other faiths.
“I began to talk with a guy who teaches the Tao, another fellow who is a Buddhist, a member of a Native American religion, and—they were probably one of the largest groups in our club—a number of pagans,” Fitts explained. “They worship Thor and the Norse Gods, and they were the ones who were singing with me. Some of my most amazing discussions have been with these people.”
And God used these friendships to continue to teach him.
“At the beginning of December about three or four years ago, the commander of the club said to us, ‘They’re going to allow us to have a Christmas party. Each one of you can bring one pack of cookies or crackers, and one soda pop. That’s all.’ (Equality is the norm in there. No one can lord it over anyone else, especially when it comes to material goods.) And then he looked over at me. ‘And we want you to bring the guitar and sing Christmas carols.’”
At this, Dr. Fitts protested immediately. “Steve,” he said to the commander, “we can’t do that. We have different religions in here besides Christianity.”
But sitting on his left was the leader of the pagans, a big, muscled, good-looking kid named Bobby, who gave Fitts a poke with his elbow. “Ah,” he grunted. “We can sing Jesus songs for one night.”
And so for their Christmas that year, Fitts played Christmas carols for the veterans’ club.
“I began to realize,” he concluded, “that some of us are not meant to have two hundred baptisms at the end of a meeting—big sparklers going off, firecrackers popping. Some of us are simply called to plant seeds, and perhaps to water those seeds. And maybe that’s all for this life.”
Fitts feels safe in the prison yard as long as his club members are walking by his side. “I know the Lord’s watching over us,” he said. “But when I think of these guys, I realize they truly do care for the volunteers. They love us. There is a love there. We call it the band of brothers. You know, that’s a part of the lingo we use: ‘You’ve got my back, I’ve got yours.’ That’s the way we talk, and I think it’s real.”
By Kaylin Thurber, student writer