Christmas shared with county inmates

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 20, 2005

With tears building in his stark blue eyes, the inmate from cell block A8 held the baked treat up to his cheek for several moments before sliding it back into a brown, paper sack.

&8220;My mom made this pineapple upside down cupcake,&8221; he said. &8220;I can smell it coming through the plastic baggie.&8221;

Cupcakes, cookies, snacks and even sweet tea were part of a much-welcomed Christmas feast for the 466 men and women who will spend the holidays locked in the high-security facilities of the Shelby County Jail.

&8220;This is the outside world brought in,&8221; said one of the inmates, whose names were withheld for this story at the request of the Rev. Leslie Whiting Sr., chaplain of inmates.

&8220;Right now I don’t feel like a number, I feel like a person.&8221;

Whiting organized the collection of baked goods for the jail’s inmate ministry program, which passed out the treats Friday night as it does each year just before Christmas.

He was up until 3 a.m. Friday morning after an outpouring of support from a community that responded to his appeal for individually wrapped items to share with Shelby County’s inmate population, a list including convicted killers, felons and other assorted criminals.

&8220;Men and women of God stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to make sure this came together,&8221; Whiting told a group of inmates before handing out the treat bags. &8220;It does not matter to a mother what their kid does in life, their momma’s going to love them.&8221;

One such mother, Whiting said, drove to the collection site all the way from Gadsden with boxes of Honey Buns – enough for an entire cell block to assure her son would get one.

Local Boy Scout and Fellowship of Christian Athlete chapters were also big contributors this year, along with corporate donations from Piggly Wiggly, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and others, Whiting said.

The inmates, many of whom cheered at the sight of Whiting followed by carts of goodie bags and gallons of tea, shared their appreciation with the handful of volunteers who went from block to block serving them.

&8220;A lot of people are looking for love in here,&8221; said an inmate in the work-detail block, an area of the jail housing inmates considered to be low-risk. &8220;A lot of these people have been given up on. This gives you hope.&8221;

Whiting’s wife, Teresa, who serves as the assistant chaplain to women, said several of the female inmates shared poems and performed songs during the ministry.

&8220;They were just overwhelmed,&8221; she said. &8220;It really touched them and made them think about what they could do with their lives when they got out into the community.&8221;

The inmate program runs year-round and Teresa said participation requires a deal of patience on the part of the chaplains.

&8220;It’s a hard ministry,&8221; she said. &8220;You can’t go in there every time expecting to see the fruit.&8221;

But her and her husband both agree the program is well worth the labor.

&8220;I just talked to a guy who was in (the Shelby County Jail) and he wanted to thank the guys who had ministered to him,&8221; Leslie Whiting told a group of volunteers Friday night. &8220;What you’re doing is working.&8221;