MCLOUD — Her voice rising and falling in a preacher's cadence, Marsha Travis held up her Bible as she spoke about the importance of forgiveness.
Her audience of about 35 women seemed to listen intently.
“When the enemy comes in to roar in your face, you think ‘I've got this.' No, you don't. If you don't have this down in your spirit, you don't have it,” Travis said to a chorus of “Amen” from her audience.
Travis, a member of The Gate Church, shared faith lessons in a weekly Bible study at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center. She said the regular sessions are well-attended and held in a room on the correctional center compound.
Travis and a host of other faith group volunteers are hoping she will be conducting the church-like sessions in a new chapel one day soon. The women's prison is poised to become one of the next Oklahoma prison facilities to have a chapel building constructed on prison grounds by the nonprofit organization World Mission Builders.
The funds raised through private means, the group already has built chapels at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy and the Charles E. “Bill” Johnson Correctional Center in Alva.
Travis, 61, and another longtime faith group volunteer Virginia Brendle, 69, said the Mabel Bassett prison chapel effort is only lacking one thing: Money.
The volunteers said about $500,000 is needed to build and furnish the 5,000-square-foot chapel. The Rev. Joe Wilson Wilson, of Enid, said World Mission Builders has teamed with the architectural and engineering firm Frankfurt Short Bruza to plan the Mabel Bassett chapel's construction. Wilson said the project needs $250,000 in cash donations. Another $250,000 in volunteer labor and in-kind services is expected. The use of volunteer labor for what organizers call an “old-fashioned barn-raising effort” also is a key component in the chapel construction project.
Travis and Brendle said the project kicked off last December and efforts to raise money are continuing. They said they were pleasantly surprised to see Mabel Bassett inmates donate more than $3,000 to the chapel fund and more are coming forward with additional monies.
The volunteers said in the last few weeks, they have sent out numerous information packets to churches across the state, asking that congregations will donate money for the project.
Brendle, who attends several Shawnee-area churches, said the chapel will be built in an area so that it will be one of the first buildings newly arrived inmates see when they get to the prison. She said this strategic placement is part of the chapel project's motto: “Hope going in, help going out.”
“This chapel is going to do it — it's going to give these women hope,” Brendle said.
Filling a need
The longtime volunteers said the new 5,000-square-foot chapel isn't just for aesthetics. They said it is needed to deal with overcrowding and climate-control issues.
Sheila Hargis, 40, an inmate from El Reno, said she heard the chapel project might be postponed so she spoke to other inmates about donating their money to the effort. She said large faith services and other classes are generally held in the prison's gymnasium which is not climate-controlled. She said sessions have to be canceled in extremely hot or cold weather.
Hargis, a Christian, said the new chapel would alleviate this issue, plus it would provide more classroom space, a library and an office for the prison's chaplain.
She and other inmates such as Tocquianna Culver and Nina Walker said the chapel would be a place of transformation for many inmates who need spiritual guidance to get their lives back on track.
“We all just decided to donate,” said Walker, 38. “Whatever income we go in, we tithed that to the chapel.”
Walker, a Christian, said many inmates began by giving a few dollars, but she noticed that the amounts are increasing every day.
“It's like they're hungry for the new chapel,” she said, noting that about 80 women can squeeze into the current classroom/Bible study room, but this often leads to overcrowding.
“We have to put people on a waiting list because we can't get any more people in here,” Walker said.
Culver, 48, of Oklahoma City, said she envisions herself attends Juma prayer, the obligatory Friday Islamic prayer services, in the new chapel classrooms because she is Muslim. She said the chapel will be a welcome addition to inmates of all faiths. Culver also said inmates will have better access to the chaplain because he will have a designated office.
“It benefits everyone,” she said.
“Religion, no matter what religion it is, plays a huge part in restoring people and families. It all beings with a spiritual base.”
“It will affect people on the outside too because some people who get saved here, they witness to their families. It kind of has a ripple effect,” Hargis said.
Meanwhile, Travis and Brendle said more than 140 services are month are currently conducted at the prison. They said the prison accommodates roughly 1,100 female inmates in a minimum-, medium- and maximum-security setting.
Charles Freyder, of Bethany, a chaplain at the prison, said he came from a prison system in another state where designated chapel buildings were the norm.
“I saw the benefits of having a dedicated chapel for offenders,” he said.
Freyder, 51, said it helps that the proposed chapel, with its steeple, looks like a church “so that when these ladies attend a church service, they can feel like they are really attending a church.”
Also, he said the prison needs more classroom space and sound equipment and other items that constantly have to be transported for services and classes take a beating. Freyder said he predicts that services held in a chapel setting will encourage more spontaneous spiritual experiences.
“It's just the setting more than anything. When you're in an institution, you're in an institution. When you're in a chapel, you're in a chapel.”