Hillsong NYC and Prison Fellowship teamed up to bring a night of “hope” to inmates imprisoned at New York City’s infamous Rikers Island detention center on the eve of Independence Day. The event also represented a “full circle” moment for one Prison Fellowship employee.
Around 35 volunteers from the megachurch and some affiliated with nation’s largest evangelical prison ministry engaged with 43 male inmates from the city’s main jail complex during a worship event held in a Rikers Island gymnasium.
The event was held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and featured live worship from Hillsong NYC’s worship band, who were joined by Chris Davenport of Hillsong United. The night also featured testimony from one member of the Hillsong NYC band and message of hope from Prison Fellowship field director Jose Negron.
As many as 21 inmates came forward when given the opportunity to respond to the Gospel, according to Prison Fellowship senior director of programs and special events Jennifer Lowrey.
One song that was played for the inmates was Hillsong United’s “Another in the Fire.”
“It has an amazing lyric about not being alone and about how Jesus is our other person in the fire with us. I was standing back next to the men so I could see the lyrics. ... I just couldn’t stop crying,” said Lowrey, whose own parents were once detained at Rikers Island when she was a child.
“It just moved me so much. The guy right next to me couldn’t stop crying. It was amazing to see.”
The night was part of Prison Fellowship’s “Hope Events” initiative in which the nonprofit hosts one and two-day evangelism events in hundreds of prisons across the nation each year. At these events, speakers, musicians and volunteers convey to inmates the hope they have found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
According to Prison Fellowship, Hope Events give prisoners a chance to respond to Christ and “take the next step of joining a faith community behind bars.” The events normally are held outside prison chapels because they are designed to engage inmates who wouldn’t normally attend chapel programming.
In 2018, 209 Hope Events were held in detention facilities nationwide.
“I think the thing that moved me on a personal level was that I am so grateful that we have an opportunity to bring hope into places like Rikers,” Lowrey told CP. “At the same time, it makes me really sad because when I see the guys, a lot of times I wish that my dad had somebody to intervene and do that for him. You wonder, what if someone had been able to be there for him at a key point. His trajectory could have changed.”
Lowrey said her family had her father pronounced dead about a decade ago after he disappeared as an impoverished alcoholic and stopped cashing inheritance checks.
When Lowrey was a small child, her mother and father were arrested and taken to Rikers Island for kidnapping her away from her grandparents in Kansas. Her grandparents were her legal guardians at the time and when her grandfather tracked them down, they were in New York City.
“The thing I'm really grateful for is that the Lord has given me an opportunity to kind of come full circle,” Lowrey said. “It really is illustrative of the kind of change that we hope for.”
Last Wednesday’s Hope Event at Rikers Island was the first time that Hillsong NYC, which is part of the Australian-based Hillsong Church, and Prison Fellowship partnered together.
The relationship began a few months ago when a Prison Fellowship staff member attended a Hillsong NYC service during a trip to the city and met Hillsong’s Luke Snowzell, Lowrey said.
“They have been just super excited about finding ways to serve. So they now have volunteers that are coming in, working as volunteers in our [Prison Fellowship Academy] at Rikers,” Lowrey explained. “They're there helping with the Angel Tree sports clinic that's upcoming.”
Lowrey said that Prison Fellowship hopes to partner with Hillsong NYC for future Hope Events.