The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 23, 2013

Finding Christ behind bars

Ministering to inmates not Philbrick’s first choice, higher power was calling

By Phyllis Zorn, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Every Wednesday morning, most Saturdays and some Sundays, R.J. Philbrick sets aside his plumber’s tools, goes to his other office in Garfield County Detention Facility and shares the Lord with those who need it most.

Inmates at the jail can sign up for a time to meet with Philbrick, or he can ask to see the inmates. They typically meet for 45 minutes to an hour, but he has met with some of them as long as two or three hours, depending on the need.

During his meetings with inmates, he’s there for one thing and one thing only.

“I call them in, and we don’t talk about anything but the Lord,” Philbrick said.

He doesn’t allow inmates to discuss the legal case against them or complaints about their conditions at the jail. That’s not the reason he’s there.

“I’m there to see their hearts change,” Philbrick said. “We talk about the work of God. We try to see it change their hearts.”

Often enough, the work can be discouraging, Philbrick said.

Surrender to a call

While in jail, inmates truly want to change their ways, but when they get back out, they slip into their old ways.

But Philbrick sticks with it.

“I’ve been doing this about 11 years,” Philbrick said. “The Lord called me into jail ministry — laid it on my heart when I got right with God. I kept rejecting it, but you just can’t reject the Lord when he calls you.”

When he surrendered to the call and set about getting started, he quickly found it wasn’t going to be as easy as showing up at the jail and asking to come in. There were hurdles to get over first.

“I became part of the Oklahoma Jail and Prison Ministry,” Philbrick said.

The credentials

OJPM chaplains receive credentials through the state to go into jails and Department of Corrections facilities. For prison ministry, there are other credentials that must be met.

According to Oklahoma Jail Ministry website, the program is active in eight jails and currently has 10 chaplains to serve them.

These include Oklahoma County Detention Center and Juvenile Detention Center, Midwest City Jail, Canadian County Jail, Garfield County Detention Facility, Payne County Jail, Muskogee County Jail and Rogers County Jail.

But OJPM chaplains are not limited to only those 10 facilities. “We can go to any jail facility in the state of Oklahoma,” Philbrick said.

The philosophy of OJPM is to work for reconciliation, transformation and restoration in the lives of the inmates.

Rewards, heartbreak

Philbrick also meets with inmates at Enid Community Corrections Center.

Philbrick said he is aware jail ministry isn’t for everyone.

“I’ve had a lot of people come and want to help me,” Philbrick said. “It’s not a fun deal, really. It’s very, very rewarding but very difficult. It’s a very rewarding ministry, and then again it’s a lot of heartbreak. You want these guys to go right, and you think they are and then they don’t.”

But if he sees just one out of 100 get their lives straight, that’s the reward in the work, Philbrick said.

“I get letters from prisoners who have gone to other parts of the country who have done right,” Philbrick said. “That’s my payday.”

Philbrick has found himself making differences he didn’t expect to make.

“I’ve actually taught some to read from the word of God,” Philbrick said. “One of them in particular, he said, ‘I’m illiterate.’ I taught him to read from the Bible, and today he’s a pastor in another state.”

‘A great asset’

“Lay ministry is very important,” said Garfield County Sheriff Jerry Niles. “It’s another source of counseling and release for the inmates. It’s also faith-based. It’s all volunteer and nothing is forced on anyone. They can ask to meet with him — it’s an expression of the rights they do still have.”

Niles said jail ministry provides inmates some measure of comfort, accountability and support.

Besides Philbrick, members of The Gideons and inmates’ personal ministers make jail visits.

Ministers must bring their credentials, and if the sheriff’s office does not know them, a background might be done before they are permitted to enter.

“He’s a great guy and a great asset to us,” Niles said of Philbrick.

“We’re very fortunate to have him there to carry on the work,” said Don Duncan, senior chaplain for OJPM.

Duncan said jail chaplains come from diverse Christian denominations and must undergo the organization’s mentoring and training program before getting their credentials.

When Philbrick isn’t inside the jail being a chaplain, he operates Red’s Plumbing. That’s been his work since 1969.

Philbrick is a member of Bible Baptist Church, 11th and Maple.