In the unlikely location of a Tennessee county jail, God is gloriously saving female inmates and baptizing them in the Holy Spirit.
AN UNEXPECTED MINISTRY
When Donna Sparks became an Assemblies of God evangelist in 2014, her vision was to travel throughout the country to share the gospel and her story of redemption. And that’s how her ministry did begin and continues to this day.
However, in 2015, God opened the door to a “side ministry” that has since become a significant part of Sparks’ evangelism efforts.
“My heart is to see the lost come to Christ,” she says. “I have quite a testimony of what God has done in my own life, and I began to realize what a waste it was not to share this with people who really need that message of hope . . . those in prison.”
At first, Sparks was unsuccessful in getting into jails or prisons to share her testimony, but when she and her family moved to Lexington, Tennessee, she contacted the pastor of her church, Trinity Assembly of God, about helping out with the church’s already established prison ministry.
“I met with the woman in charge of the ministry and shared my testimony with her as well as my desire to reach the lost for Christ,” Sparks recalls. “The next thing I know, she says, ‘You’re the one — you’re the one to take over the jail ministry. I’m moving.’”
It was a whole new world of ministry for Sparks and she admits the first time the heavy steel doors closed and locked behind her, it sent a shiver down her spine. Ministering to women in the friendly confines of a church setting is one thing; ministering to women, many who had been hardened by life and imprisoned for crimes of all kinds, that takes a calling.
Over the next several years, Sparks learned and led the jail ministry. Originally at the Decatur County Jail, Sparks oversaw the expanding of their reach to the Carroll County and Henry County jails and also began working with Teen Challenge and other rehab facilities. Lives were not only being transformed, they were being restored.
Prior to COVID hitting, Sparks and her husband, Bryan, started attending Northside AG in relatively nearby Jackson, Tennessee, in order to more easily attend church with their daughter who was going to college in Jackson. Sparks established her own jail ministry, Story of Grace Jail Ministry, and was seeing a growing interest by inmates in the ministry. In the Carroll County Jail, which could house just over 40 women, Sparks was seeing nearly that many women turn out for the weekly services. God was at work!
“Donna has preached in some great churches across this nation,” noted Randy Carter, former lead pastor of Northside AG, in a sermon, “. . . [but] every Friday she goes to the jail in Decatur County . . . she goes faithfully, why? Because she committed to walk in obedience and to seize the opportunity regardless of the size of the opportunity.”
But when COVID hit, access to jails and prisons was totally closed off. For more than a year, she was unable to minister to the women at any facility. Women transitioned in and out and Sparks worried that she would have to start the ministry from scratch, building trust again before she, her team of volunteers, or the gospel message they shared — would be accepted.
AN AMAZING COMEBACK
Sparks was finally able to return to jail ministry on April 27, 2021, at the Carroll County facility. The two other jails have not yet been reopened to outside ministries. However, what Sparks found at the Carroll County Jail has left her re-energized for the ministry like never before.
“There were good things happening [in the jail] before COVID, but God has really ramped things up!” Sparks exclaims. “It’s amazing. These ladies, they come in, and before we even get through the first song, they’re coming up and asking me to lead them to Jesus and the next thing you know, they’re falling on the floor! The ladies don’t even know what’s hitting them . . . and when I help them back up, they’re praying in tongues!”
Sparks says the Holy Spirit is moving and is being poured out in the lives of inmates, some who have never heard the gospel and most who have no idea what a Pentecostal is. “God is just showing up in their lives and they are walking in here expecting God to move,” Sparks says. “And He does!”
On June 22, Sparks was prepared to baptize 15 women who had come to Christ or rededicated their lives to Christ over the past two months. However, at the last minute, the jail cancelled the baptism, stating that due to a fight in the men’s facility, the women’s facility was short staffed so the baptism could not be held.
Although disappointed, Sparks held a regular service — and God honored it.
“We had six more ladies accept Christ or rededicate their lives to Christ, four ladies slain in the Spirit, and three filled with the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” Sparks says. “There’s nothing in the world like seeing how powerful God is moving in the services . . . the ladies get up from the floor knowing and saying that, ‘He’s real, He’s real!’”
The week following the cancellation of the baptismal service, Sparks was told that the service had to be cancelled again. But that evening a correctional officer interrupted the service – the baptismal tank was ready. “A couple of the ladies weren’t there that night, as one was released and the other was working, but we still had 15 baptized that night,” Sparks says. “The ladies were just rejoicing, clapping their hands and squealing in joy — it was just an amazing evening.”
DOUBTERS TO BELIEVERS
Attendance at the services have returned to seeing nearly every female inmate present — young and old. However, those in attendance also often includes those who have come to snicker and/or demonstrate how the gospel message holds no power.
Sparks recalls one hardened lady tell her: “The minute we walk into this room, we get goosebumps and they don’t leave until we leave this room . . . I have come in here trying my best to not feel anything, and the minute I walk in the door, I start crying . . . I can’t explain it.”
Sparks’ response simply directed the woman to God. “I just told her that it was the power of the Holy Spirit she was experiencing.”
Sparks says she’s had lesbians repent and commit to living according to God’s Word, witnessed physical healings, heard testimonies of families’ lives touched in response to prayer, and even had women called into the ministry.
Also, due to the transformational change in the lives of the women, correctional officers have taken note. And now, where once Sparks struggled to bring ministry into jails and prisons, she is the one being contacted and asked to come.
“I wish I could take people into just one service, so they could see what God is doing,” Sparks says. “These ladies have their hands in the air, tears rolling down their faces, and they’re pouring out everything to God, expecting Him to move . . . just think what would happen if we came to our own churches expecting God to move! I tell the ladies that they are more free now than many people walking around on the outside of these walls.”