The following story was posted on LLNL's daily NewsLine site. It's stirring up quite a bit of controversy (more comments than I've seen in over a decade at LLNL). So far there's been zero feedback from Lab management. I'm wondering what the outside community might think about this posting.
Up to 200 inmates gather on Sundays to attend church services at a medium-security state prison located in the picturesque foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. One of their preachers at the Sierra Conservation Center (SCC) near Jamestown is not your typical prison pastor.
His name is Owen Alford and he happens to work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Alford, a senior engineering associate in the National Security Engineering Division, is passionate about two things: engineering and his Christian faith. So when he had the opportunity 15 years ago to share his faith with prisoners he believed could benefit from it, he embraced the challenge.
"Engineering types typically look for and enjoy solving the most difficult problems," said Alford, 59, a Lab veteran whose career began in 1980. "Ministering in prison is a difficult problem. Helping men come to faith and enabling them to reenter society better equipped to meet their personal challenges are all worthwhile and rewarding endeavors."
His journey to become a volunteer prison pastor began when a Florida church that received letters from SCC inmates seeking volunteer pastors to lead services and teachschool contacted Alford's church in Pleasanton, the Christ Bible Church. Churches in the SCC region decided not to participate in the program, so they contacted the Florida church, which offered online Bible study courses, as a last resort.
The Florida church's pastor knew Alford's pastor, so the opportunity blossomed. Christ Bible Church - a congregation of 75 members -- had never done anything like that before, but Alford and his pastor knew it was important to help the inmates.
Alford and his pastor - who now preaches at San Quentin State Prison - became volunteer ministers who assisted the prison chaplain with services andschool. In the beginning, Alford would go to SCC twice a month, driving an hour from his home in Tracy to the prison, which sits in a bucolic region between Oakdale and Yosemite National Park. He now goes once a month.
His prison congregation andschool students -- dressed in their inmate jumpsuits -- have included murderers, rapists, robbers, thieves, drug dealers and other offenders. The high-risk offenders, such as the murderers and rapists, have since been transferred to other prisons.
Some inmates were professing Christians before their incarceration, while other convicts became Christians while serving time. A majority are genuinely interested inservices. But a handful also attends church to earn points for good behavior in an effort to receive special privileges.
Since these men worship in a state penitentiary, up to 10 armed guards are close by and ready to enter the prison chapel's doors if there's a problem that causes a preacher to push the alarm. Fortunately for Alford, there have never been any major behavioral issues.
Tall and fit, the bearded Alford commands attention when he steps on the pulpit in the stained glass chapel to begin his 45-minute sermons after an inmate band plays Christian songs.
"Inmates can ethically and morally live in this world, despite being where they are at," Alford said. "If someone has committed a serious crime, they can still find forgiveness through their faith."
Asked if he has contributed to changing the inmates' lives, Alford said yes, but added that the biggest change occurs when the inmates embrace and practice the teachings of their religion themselves. He believes his biggest contribution is to help inmates develop their faith.
"They want to become better people through their faith," Alford said. "And it's changing their hearts."
The feedback he receives is always positive and the inmates are thankful. Prison staff is appreciative too - so much so that they eventually gave Alford a primetime spot for hisservices:
At the end of the day, Alford doesn't mind spending his Sundays in prison.
"I appreciate the opportunity to share my faith with an audience I wouldn't have guessed in my wildest dreams I would be sharing with," he said. "When they leave prison, the inmates want to be the typical American who is not trouble with the law. They also want to get jobs and reconcile with their families."