Faith in Action: Bringing church and prayer inside local jails

Jail is a place most of us hope we never end up, but for those who do find themselves behind bars, faith might be the only thing getting them through it. 

And there's plenty to be found inside local jails and prisons. When those who are incarcerated can't make it out to traditional churches, volunteers and religious leaders bring services to them.

When you picture a house of worship, a fortress of hope, jail might not be the first place that comes to mind. But on weekends at Hillsborough County's Falkenburg Road Jail, spirits are lifted high.   

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The church looks like a classroom, and voices echo in unison as those who attend the service sing "You take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us."

Those leading the service write notes on a dry-erase board. The congregants wearing orange uniforms are seated around in a U-shaped table with Bibles placed in front of them. 

"You have laid your hand on me, alleluia," one man reads to the group. "Too wonderful for me, this knowledge, alleluia, alleluia."

While the particular religious service is Catholic, all inside the jail were welcome to attend.

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"Matthew's gospel says, when I was in prison, you visited me. It all comes back to that," said Deacon Jim Grevenites, the director of Deacon Personnel with the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

The road to redemption often starts with a visit from "Chap."

"We serve a God of second chances," said Evelyn Lopez, the chaplain for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Chaplain Lopez has been there 23 years, coordinating religious programs, collecting Bible donations and spending a lot of time talking one-on-one with residents.

"You'd be surprised how many people that are in here were raised in the church," Lopez said. "I kind of sit back, and I'm like, 'okay, well, you know what? The prodigal son. You're coming home.'"

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The Diocese of St. Petersburg brings the Liturgy of the Word for men and women on Sundays, and a Spanish service on Saturdays. Priests, deacons and lay ministers visit jails and prisons in five Bay Area counties.

"I oftentimes tell them, relax, you're in church now," said Deacon Dave Lesieur, Hillsborough County's prison ministry liaison for the Diocese of St. Petersburg. "And you can just see the tension drain away, and the real person comes out."

For some, these may be the only faces they see from the outside, bringing mass, scripture study, confession, prayer, or simply conversation.

"They have an opportunity to talk, not only to each other a little bit, but to us, and ask questions," Grevenites said. "We have to allow spirituality into the jails. These people need it. It makes them feel human again."

And on occasion, they get to cross paths again in a much different setting.

"I've had a number of them, of our inmates, after they have served their time, come to a mass and say ‘hello,’" said Lesieur.

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Behind bars, faith can get lost, but it can just as easily be found.

"They're all created in the image, the likeness of God, and everybody is good and has the potential for goodness," said Lesieur.

"There isn't one human being on this earth that has not made mistakes or bad choices," Lopez said. "My goal every day when I walk in here is that more prodigal children will come home."

COVID-19 shut down ministry services in local jails. As a result, they lost a lot of volunteers. So, they could use plenty more to get back to where they were.

If you'd like to volunteer through the Diocese of St. Petersburg, send an email to to If you'd like to sign up through the jail or support their ministry program in any way, you can email Chaplain Lopez at

Do you know someone who's living out their faith and making a positive impact? We are looking for "Faith In Action" stories just like this one, all around the Tampa Bay area. You can send your ideas to