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33 baptized in St. Joseph County Jail
by Lynn Turner, Kalamazoo (MI) Gazette
December 7, 2007 Centreville -- When John Vincent Grogan III was in prison, he’d see other inmates claim to have found God, use it as a way to earn an early release -- then leave behind their Bibles when paroled.
So he understands people will be skeptical to learn someone with eight felonies, "a couple of dozen misdemeanors" and a criminal record dating to age 12 -- and going back to prison for 18 months for a parole violation -- has changed his ways and accepted Jesus Christ into his life.
"I don’t want to be a poster boy," the heavily tattooed 29-year-old former Detroit gang member said. "I want to show people there can be a change."
Grogan was among 33 St. Joseph County Jail inmates on Thursday who were baptized in a full-immersion ceremony led by Jerry Solis, assistant pastor of Riverside Church, a nondenominational ministry in Three Rivers.
Riverside has offered its "Celebrate Recovery" program at the jail on Thursdays for the past six months, said John Booko, senior pastor of the church.
The program bonds the 12-step recovery process with a Christian twist and Biblical comparisons.
"We started with about 22 participants and now we have more than 100" attending each week, Booko said.
Some come just for the coffee and cookies, Booko said, and that’s OK. They still hear the message that there is a different path inmates can walk now and when they get out of jail.
Thursday wrapped up the final of the 12 sessions with almost one-third of the participants taking part in the baptism.
Church officials brought in a portable baptismal font used at the sanctuary, located in the old Three Rivers High School. Some 300 gallons of water was changed during the three ceremonies -- one for women, two for men.
The jail has been the site of baptisms in the past, Sheriff Matthew Lori said. "But it was a kind of anointing thing with pitchers and a wash basin. Not a full immersion," he said.
The ceremony celebrates "the burying of the old, symbolically, and a rebirth" and going public with their belief in Jesus, Booko said.
"You’ve heard the old saying, ’Once a drug addict always a drug addict?’ It doesn’t have to hold true. People can change. People can walk away from that," he said.
"Jesus was a friend of sinners. We’re just trying to be his arms and heart."
Solis, who joined Riverside 12 years ago, has a unique perspective on the jail ministry. He is a former crack-cocaine addict, now clean for 22 years, something he openly tells people. He was a police officer in Three Rivers for six years before joining Riverside.
As each person climbed into the water, Solis and jail chaplain Jake Schwartz baptized them. They leaned each person backward into the water, then brought them forward to rousing applause from other inmates and visitors who gathered in the basketball gym that doubled as their meeting hall.
"I was lost for so many years," said Linda Hults, 49, who is awaiting sentencing on a domestic violence charge in January. "I feel I’ve found a life now."
Having already served more than 10 years in prison for convictions related to her drinking and dysfunctional family relationships, Hults said she’s tired of being unhappy, drinking, going to jail and repeating the cycle.
"Demons come after you in jail, but not as much as when you get out," she said. "When I get out this time I’ll have that support, so if I want to have a drink, there are people I can call to help me."
Jessica Fairfield, 25, and her fiance, Christopher Brooks, 34, both of Three Rivers, returned to jail Thursday to be baptized. "I wanted to be here with my girls," said Fairfield, who spent 51 days in jail on a possession of methamphetamine charge.
After attending the Celebrate Recovery program for three weeks, Fairfield said she was compelled to give her life over to God.
"I was feeling guilty. I hated the world," she said. "Now I feel awesome. I don’t have to worry about the drugs."
Brooks said he thought it was the right thing to be baptized in jail because that was where he found God.
"I wanted to show other people ... that Jesus is out there and it works," he said.
Knowing that he is going back to prison gives Grogan a certain credibility with others in jail that his belief in Jesus Christ is real.
"If this bad a-- guy can come in here and do this, it is true," Grogan said. "I’ve made it as far as I can on my own. When I reached out my hand, no one was there but Jesus."
Solis said he is optimistic Grogan will make it through prison with his faith intact.
"I would love to hire him as an assistant," he said.