Every day Bernadine Archer goes somewhere most of us would not willingly go. She enters a compound enclosed by three 12-foot chain link fences topped with coiled razor-ribbon wire, an electronic detection system and two gun towers.
Archer, the only credentialed female prison chaplain endorsed by the Seventh-day Adventist church, has been ministering to 1,200 male inmates at the Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven, Michigan since 1994.
As a correctional facility chaplain, Archer represents one of 30 Adventist chaplains working in prisons in the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic and Latvia, says Martin Feldbush director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries (ACM), the official organization that endorses Seventh-day Adventist chaplains. The first Adventist correctional chaplain was endorsed in 1980. Prison chaplains are not only focused on leading a convict to Christ but are a key part of the rehabilitative effort.
Macomb is not an overnight holding jail. Every inmate there has been convicted of a crime.
“I trust in the Lord, [and] so far I haven’t been hurt,” Archer says. “But usually if you show respect, you get respect.”
Archer says the system is very controlled and regimented. She wears a silent alarm, the men have to be escorted when they go through the building and there’s a wall-mounted alarm in the office.
How did a woman who planned on being a teacher end up working with convicted criminals?
Archer was in her last year at Michigan State University studying to become a teacher when she became an Adventist. She went on to teach for six years.
She then attended Andrews University—which houses the church’s seminary for those who want to become Adventist pastors—to earn a master’s degree in religious education. She did not have any plans to become a pastor. Oddly, the classes she took that summer were all requirements for the seminary school.
“The Holy Spirit was really leading,” Archer says.
This was not just the first sign she had gotten urging her to pursue pastoring. While she was a teacher in Flint, Michigan, she kept getting invitations to speak at churches.
“I’ve never, ever asked anybody ‘may I preach at your church?’ People just asked me. I learned later on that that is an objective call from God.”
She answered that call and went to seminary at Andrews, where she was one of five women in a class of 425 men. She was also the first black woman to receive a master of divinity degree in the Adventist church.
“I believe that the Holy Spirit is no respecter of persons,” Archer says. “It’s not the person that matters—it is the message. He can use females as well as males. He spoke through a donkey. I don’t think that it matters with God.”
She admits women pastors must be very strong and that they do face a lot of challenges unique to women. “But the assurance comes from knowing God and wanting to glorify his name,” she notes.
She waited for seven years before she got a call to work at the prison. During that time she did not doubt that she was to become a pastor.
“I knew in my heart that God was calling me,” Archer says.
The Macomb Correctional Facility opened in 1993. She started working there in 1994. The previous chaplain was also an Adventist.
She finds that prison ministry is similar to public evangelism which she has a passion for. “You work with a different culture, a different mindset.”
The ability to work with different populations is critical to fulfilling the duties of a chaplain, Feldbush, says. It is especially important for prison chaplains who must work with inmates from a variety of faith backgrounds. At the same time, chaplains must maintain a clear identity of who they are as Adventist ministers.
Archer coordinates 106 volunteers who help with religious services for those who adhere to Buddhism, the Nation of Islam, Judaism, Native American Indian and various Christian denominations. She also coordinates wedding security clearance and does pre-marital counseling, preaches at Protestant services and leads some Bible studies.
Just this past February, 60 inmates were baptized at the facility. Of those, 26 made the decision to become Adventists.
Archer tells the men: “God loves you. He is a God of forgiveness. I tell them that if they will confess their sins God will forgive. I tell them: ‘God doesn’t love the sin, He loves the sinner.’”
But how does Archer even measure true impact or conversion in these men? She says it is difficult to keep track of them because the men don’t always spend their entire sentences at Macomb. Sometimes they transfer to different facilities. She says that some of the converts on parole have been attending Adventist churches. But she also tells the realistic stories as well of those who once they got out of prison fell back to their old ways despite the support of volunteers and local churches.
The fact is that “67 percent of former inmates released from state prisons in 1994 committed at least one serious new crime within the following three years,” according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the United States.
“Genuine rehabilitation consists of education, job training, communication skills and spiritual care,” says Feldbush. “The role of chaplain—if properly understood—holds one of the greatest potentials for rehabilitation and cutting down on recidivism rates.”
Surveys have shown that “individuals who maintain contact with a spiritual community and a relationship with God don’t come back to prison,” agrees Leonard Hawley, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Correctional Chaplains Association.
Still, Archer understands it can be difficult for new converts to stay on the right path after leaving prison. Often this is because when they leave they go back into the same environment that got them incarcerated in the first place. She says the main thing they need is the support of a church home and the self-discipline to leave their bad habits behind.
She encourages the men to read a lot of spiritual literature. She remembers one man who had been reading the Desire of Ages, a book written by Ellen G. White, one of the founders of the Adventist church. He came to her one day and said “I’ve been reading about Seventh-day Adventists and I’ve decided to become one. Do you know anything about Adventists?”
She says she is happy just to plant the seeds of faith and has been amazed by some of the men who have developed a passion for Christ. One man in particular preached in her place one Sunday when she was not feeling well. As she listened to him she realized that he knew what he was talking about. He has now spoken twice in her place.
“I’ve seen God change lives. ... The Bible says a good man may fall seven times but he can get back up again,” Archer says.
Outside the prison she is working on getting a grant to build an evangelism center and a community center to help the homeless.
Archer says she is happy and truly enjoys her work at Macomb. “I don’t decide what I’m going to do,” she says. “I always pray and ask God what His will is. If God says ‘let’s move on’ He will help me to obey.”