Northpoint chaplain experiencing 'most blessed ministry'

December 31, 2004|HERB BROCK

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on chaplaincy programs at major institutions. Called "captive audience," the series focuses on Northpoint Training Center and Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center. Today's story is based on an interview with the Rev. Fred Coburn, longtime chaplain at Northpoint. The story on Jan. 7 is about the chaplaincy program at McDowell, led by the Rev. Dale Denton.

The Rev. Fred Coburn has preached in front of many pulpits but he's gotten much more reward out of preaching from behind bars.

For 17 years Coburn has served as chaplain at Northpoint Training center, a medium-security prison on Burgin Road that is home to 1,250 inmates. While he enjoyed his minister as an Assembly of God pastor, it's his experience as a jailhouse preacher that has been his "most blessed ministry."

Actually, it has been more than a "blessed" experience for him.

"It's been fun," he said.


"Fun" is hardly a word most people would use in having to deal with convicts, and Coburn will admit that trying to bring the Gospel to men whose Bible is a how-to manual on how to break both man's and God's laws has often been "frustrating" and "trying." But he contended the effort has been worth it, to him and to scores of men whose life he believes he has helped change.

And you can tell he cares a lot about the so-called "cons." He doesn't call them prisoners or inmates or criminals or convicts. He calls them "my men."

"I have tried to be a caring and compassionate man of God, and I've also tried to serve as a father figure to my men," Coburn said. "Many of them only had fathers in the biological sense. Many of them never knew their dads.

"I've tried to build a platform on which the Lord can build. I've tried to set the stage for the Lord to do His work with my men," he said. "Many don't allow the Lord into their hearts and lives, but for those who do, you can see how He has turned on a thousand lightbulbs. You can see the joy."

Coburn came to Northpoint in June of 1988, five years after Northpoint was opened. A graduate of Asbury College and Asbury Seminary, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees, respectively, the Jacksonville, Fla., native had served as pastor of Highland Court Assembly of God (renamed Cornerstone Assembly of God after its move to Lexington Road) from 1980-88.

Coburn was happy with his ministry at Highland Court but he was looking for a new challenge and waiting for God to present it to him. That presentation came in the form of a job opening at Northpoint - and arguably one of the biggest challenges and minister can face.

Coburn said he found a firm foundation laid by Tim O'Dell on which he could continue to build the then-fledgling chaplaincy program. Seventeen years later and the program, according to Coburn, is a "larger, more intense and involved New Testament Christian community and environment than you'll find outside the walls of this prison."

Services, devotionals, classes and visitations

As evidence to back that statement, Coburn cited a virtual round-the-clock program of services, devotionals, classes and visitations from outside ministers.

"Every day there is something going," he said. "We've tried to cover all the bases."

Coburn or one of the seven volunteer ordained and lay ministers who assist him conduct daily services from 6-8 p.m. seven days a week; on Sunday there are three services. In addition, there are Bible study meetings, prayer meetings and devotionals throughout the week.

To augment the prison's own active program, Coburn has arranged for ministers and church groups from the outside to come in and conduct services, classes, visitations and prayer meetings. Thirty area churches conduct services, each one night a month, on a rotating basis, while some provide regular services at least once a week. For example, a Catholic priest celebrates Mass every Wednesday at 4 p.m., and a service leader from the Islamic Society of Danville leads prayer for the prison's 15 to 20 Muslims every Friday at 1 p.m.

"We normally don't have many Jewish inmates - think we have a couple right now - but if they want to see a rabbi, I will arrange that," he said. "We have had Buddhists in the past and we addressed their spiritual needs.

"And the most important thing about the program is that I and my volunteer assistant try to be out there (on the yard), available and accessible at all times, day or night. If we cannot address their needs, we will find someone who can," said Coburn, who works Sunday through Thursday but is often on-call.

Overall, Coburn estimates that 10 percent of Northpoint's 1,250 inmates participate in the chaplaincy program to at least some extent, whether it's attending a service or a Bible study program. He said most are Protestant, while most of the rest are Catholic.

No matter what their denomination, inmates generally are a hard nut to crack spiritually, he said.

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