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INDEPENDENCE — Approximately 10 percent of offenders at River North Correctional Center in Independence are now regularly attending River North Men’s Fellowship Church, according to the facility’s new chaplain.
R.B. Anderson is conducting services while also in training at River North, after having recently been hired by the River North Ministry Council (RNMC) to the part-time chaplain position.
The Rev. Terri Gregory, chairperson of RNMC, said the position is likely the only one of its kind — it is entirely funded by monetary support from local churches and individuals, instead of by the Department of Corrections.
Anderson said the River North Men’s Fellowship Church, in just its second month of existence, provided a service for 46 offenders on Jan. 31, and for 52 the Friday before.
Attendance has doubled over the past month, Anderson said, adding that the boost in attendance has prompted the ordering of more chairs.
“God is working through me,” said Anderson. “Offenders are telling each other about the services and encouraging participation. We’d like to take this as far as we can, within the confines of what River North will allow.”
Anderson said he had received encouragement from both the offenders and facility staff. “They’ll tell me, ‘I’m glad you’re here,”’ he said.
Warden Ben Wright is Anderson’s direct supervisor, and has the authority to dismiss him at any time for any reason, but Anderson said Wright has been “very good” to him and indicated his approval and support of the ministry program.
Anderson, who lives in Bland County, has a background that includes extensive military experience, serving as a Green Beret.
He also dedicated much of his career to working with children and teens, starting and serving as principal for Minnick Education Centers for juveniles with emotional problems or learning disabilities, and more recently leading the Carroll County High School Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps until 2007.
In addition to his new role as chaplain, Anderson is currently the co-owner of Anderson Grass Fed Beef and a Methodist lay speaker. He also is a Bible teacher and member of the Gideons.
Anderson said he hopes to reach a goal of offering three Christian services and two other religious services each Friday in the coming weeks. For services to be offered for a particular religion, at least five offenders must indicate their interest in attending the services, he said, noting that some of the non-Christian services already requested include those for Sunni Muslims, Pagans and Jews.
“As chaplain, I have to respect all [the offenders’] religious rights,” he said. “I served in the Middle East for many years, and I’m used to working with other religions, and I do respect other religions.”
Before he was hired as the chaplain at River North, Anderson said he had tried for years to volunteer as a Gideon representative at several other correctional centers in the region, namely Pocahontas State Correctional Center and the Bland Correctional Center, but was never approved to volunteer. He hinted that fate brought him to River North, where he began as a volunteer before applying for the chaplain position.
“Those doors were shut because, if I had volunteered in Bland, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
Ricky Edwards, a representative from the local Gideon’s camp and volunteer with RNMC, has worked closely with Anderson and has already spent a considerable amount of time volunteering at the prison.
He said 1,200 Gideon’s Bibles — printed in English, Spanish and one in Korean — have been provided for River North. In his time volunteering at the facility, he said his most memorable moment was a special Christmas Eve service during which 34 offenders took communion, four were saved and seven were baptized.
“Something tremendous is going to come out of that place,” he said. “I tell the guys there that I look forward to coming to their services as much as I do going to church on Sundays.”