The envelope buried in the mail bin seems forgotten, submerged beneath piles of other letters waiting to be sorted as the sun peeks over the horizon at Southwest Correctional Facility in East Tennessee.
The piles are soon gathered up by an inmate and hurried to the mailroom, where the mountain of envelopes slowly dwindles as they are separated into canvas mail satchels that will be delivered to different wings of the facility.
Guards come to claim the satchels, their boots thumping harshly against the tile floors. The bag is scooped up and slung over a shoulder, and as the guard goes from cell to cell down the hallway, it deflates a bit more with each stop.
Finally, the guard stops outside the cell of Prisoner 487000. He digs in the mail satchel for the white envelope and hands it to the man behind bars.
Prisoner 487000 rips it open and unfolds the letter inside, written in his native language, and begins reading the Bible study translated and sent to him from Tori Cagle, senior education major.
He is one of 25 Spanish-speaking inmates across the country Cagle ministers to through Love Bible Studies, a ministry her great-grandfather started that works with more than 400 prisoners. Cagle and Chandler Cryer, who graduated in 2015, expanded the Spanish side of the ministry while in college and along the way have grown to love the men and women they encourage.
Some have only been reading the studies for a few months. Others, like Prisoner 487000, have been with the program for more than 10 years. He came to faith in Christ while in prison, and two years ago he started a Spanish church with a dozen other inmates. He eagerly awaits each letter, study and book Cagle sends him.
“He just has this voracious appetite for God—anything that he can have or know,” Cagle said. “He’ll write me and say, ‘Do you have any more books? You can get them cheap on Amazon, they don’t have to be new.’”
As the ministry grew, she recruited another student to help out—Rebecca Dalton, junior teaching English as a second language major. They each have different inmates they respond to regularly so they can build relationships and learn their stories and struggles.
Prisoners read different sections of the Bible depending on which of the 26 studies the program offers he or she is using. There are questions about the reading, and inmates are able to ask any general question they have about Christianity or the Bible. Cagle said she, Cryer and Dalton both love and dread the responses they get each week, often having to wrestle with their own faith before responding.
One prisoner asked Cryer to explain the theory of predestination and how those who believe in it also believe God loves everyone in the world.
Another week, Dalton tackled a question from someone struggling to understand how to pray to be healed from an affliction and what it meant if he prayed faithfully but God chose not to heal him. She also had someone who thought his friend was demon-possessed ask her how to cast out demons.
“I’m a 20-year-old college student. I don’t have big words of wisdom for people who have gone through so much in their lives, but I feel like every single time I do a letter it pushes me to grow in my own faith,” Dalton said. “Almost every letter, there’s some part that’s really challenging. It really makes me question and explore my own faith.”
The girls turn to different resources like websites, commentaries, professors and sometimes their own spiritual mentors for help tackling the harder questions.
Cagle’s great-grandfather Fred Maynard said he never expected the Spanish side of the ministry to expand as much as it has.
“It’s more than I realized she was even capable of handling,” he said.
Coming into college as a freshman, Cagle assumed her Spanish language background would be used for ministry overseas. She declared a Spanish major and focused on preparing for foreign missions as best as she could.
As she worked with Love Bible Studies, she saw the need the prisoners had for encouragement and solid biblical knowledge, and she saw how neglected they were in a prison system where ministries are primarily catered to those who speak English.
Now on the cusp of graduating with an education degree in December, Cagle said she isn’t sure anymore exactly what her future holds, but she’s open to working with Love Bible Studies on a more full-time basis.
“I’ve learned that my Spanish might be for this purpose and not to teach it or to go overseas,” Cagle said. “It was kind of a startling realization.”
Dalton said for her, the startling realization came in how she began to view the prisoners—not as enemies, but as fellow brothers and sisters striving toward faith in Christ with her.
“All the stereotypes that you have about people in prison just completely melt away when you start writing to them and they start sharing their story with you,” she said. “They’re not just this abstract, evil person behind bars that we need to keep away from the world. They’re real people with emotions and feelings and a lot of them, honestly, just came from a different world than we did, got into rough times and made a huge mistake and now they’re paying for it with their entire lives. But they’re still people.”