Inmates urged to find freedom in God

EVERETT — Cliff Smith knows what it’s like to live without freedom.

Not just from his years behind bars, but from the decades he spent chained to drugs and violence, alcohol and anger.

He was saved, years and years ago.

Now, Smith shares those lessons with people who are locked up at the Snohomish County Jail and the Monroe Correctional Complex. He tries to show them that they, too, can find God — and freedom — within themselves, he said.

The 63-year-old Snohomish steel worker served time himself, more than 30 years ago. Altogether, he estimates he spent about six years in various county jails for offenses related to his heroin addiction: assaults, carrying weapons, being under the influence in public.

It’s a story he’s used to telling, part of his Christian testimony.

In 1979, he was 31, locked up in Oroville, Calif., serving 18 months.

His estranged parents came to visit from Washington. They’d aged since he left home.

They forgave him. They asked him to come back. He did. He left heroin behind.

Smith’s struggles weren’t over, though. He turned to drink, and spent years an angry, bitter man, even after he met his wife, Zoe, he said.

One night, he was working late in his steel fabrication shop. Everyone else had gone home, unable to handle his violent temper.

He remembers seeing himself in the bathroom mirror.

“I saw myself, just the anger in my eyes,” he said. “I heard this voice say, ‘This is what your wife and children see every day,’ and it just broke my heart.”

That night, he prayed. He didn’t know if he believed yet, but he knew he needed to change.

Attending church and Bible studies, Smith got to know multiple chaplains who work at the county jail. One couple asked him to think about joining them.

“I told them I’d pray about it,” he said. “I did not want to go into the jail again. I did not want to hear those doors slam.”

Soon after they asked, Smith dreamed he was inside a jail. This time, he was praying. He knew God sent him the dream about his future, because it couldn’t have been his past.

Working with inmates, Smith wants to see the Holy Spirit in them, and give them hope, he said. They can see the scars on his arms and know he’s been there, been like them.

“These are lives that have been broken and need to be saved,” he said. “I want to see them restored and only God can do that.”

Smith is one of more than 100 men and women who volunteer to provide faith services at the jail, said Ron Jinkens, the head chaplain.

Services include Bible studies, chapel, and individual prayer and Biblical guidance. Services are available in nondenominational and Catholic formats, English and Spanish, for male and female inmates.

Full sign-ups and waiting lists are the norm, Jinkens said.

The volunteers are driven by compassion and mercy, he said. They have to be able to feel for people nobody else wants to be around.

“All the people who come into jail to provide ministry services to the inmates are driven not by world standards but by a love of God and a wish to be able to share that love with inmates and to see that their lives might be turned around, and they might live a useful, productive life,” he said.

The inmate population always is changing, but Smith has seen a few faces show up at church instead of back at the jail, he said.

Sometimes, he dreams about saved inmates pouring out of the jail and into local churches.

In the dreams, they’ve changed their lives because they’ve found something new, something positive and powerful.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

Jail ministry

Ministry services have been offered at the Snohomish County Jail for more than 30 years as a collaboration between the county and local faith groups. For more information, call 425-388-3295.

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