John Spurgeon sees the worst of Murfreesboro. He has spent time with those involved in abuse, addiction, sex trafficking, violence, families far beyond dysfunctional, theft, disorderly and dangerous behavior, and crime and bad situations of various types.
Spurgeon serves as the Prison Ministry Director for New Vision Baptist Church and the chaplain at both the Rutherford County Correctional Work Center and the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center.
“It hurts my heart to see a 3- or 4-year-old talking to his father in jail,” Spurgeon says. “We want to stop the cycle of crime . . . We can stop recidivism in this county if we reach out to the families.”
Over the past few years, Spurgeon and many others in Rutherford County have worked on a support structure, built on the teachings of Jesus, to try and make an impact in the lives of those who have been incarcerated for committing crimes.
“I want every person to know that God loves them, that there is a second chance,” Spurgeon says.
Through the Love in Action program, volunteers from the community come to meet one-on-one with an “adopted” inmate once a week. Even after the inmate is released, their volunteer mentor stays with them, and walks with them as they find a job, clothes, housing and the next chapter of their life, Spurgeon says.
“When an inmate gets out, often there is low self-esteem, guilt and shame,” Spurgeon says. “For every inmate to have a mentor, that is my dream.”
Spurgeon and the New Vision team have already launched a church that meets regularly in the workhouse, and have baptized many there.
“This May we are launching a church in 940,” the pastor continues. “My ultimate goal is to launch a church in Riverbend [Maximum Security Institution in Nashville].”
And through a special project, a small group of workhouse inmates can actually earn the opportunity to leave the work center under supervision and attend a church service.
“We got special permission from Mayor Burgess and Mayor McFarland to bring inmates to church in their orange suits,” Spurgeon says. “They have to earn the right to leave the jail, they have to qualify. It’s helping promote peace and good behavior. They want to get out.”
When a group of local inmates initially attended a church service at New Vision Baptist, Spurgeon said he felt he should address the congregation.
“The first time, I told the church ‘We are all no good, they just got caught. They are no different from you or I. Let’s not differentiate,’” Spurgeon says.
And he says, for the most part, the people in Murfreesboro’s churches have welcomed the men in orange warmly, and have demonstrated that there are thousands of people in the community who care about the inmates’ lives and futures.
One Sunday each month, Spurgeon and Rutherford County sheriff officers take 24 inmates to a different church, and now there is not only a waiting list of inmates who want to attend, but churches who want to host them.
Churches are scheduled through July 2018, Spurgeon says, and some of the Murfreesboro organizations who participate include North Boulevard Church of Christ, Experience Community, First United Methodist, First Baptist, World Outreach and City Church, among others.
“Sheriff Fitzhugh is so cooperative, he is so positive,” Spurgeon says. “We also reach out to the [jail and workhouse] staff. These officers interact with the inmates every day.”
Some local law enforcement officers will join inmates in church, where their families worship alongside each other, and Spurgeon also thanks jail officials Bernard Salandy and William Cope for being supportive and helping connect the local ministry community with the jail and workhouse population.
“Some female inmates will have an opportunity to leave the workhouse on Mother’s Day,” Spurgeon says.
The pastor emphazises goal setting and focusing on a vision when he communicates with inmates and those recently released from incarceration. He knows changing is a difficult process, but when a person surrounds themselves with others who want to help accomplish a goal—whether it be overcoming addiction, finding stable housing, the aim of treating others in society with love and respect or avoiding the crowd and activities the landed them in jail—that goal can be accomplished with the help of community support.
“It’s not about me. It’s about God. I give glory to God,” says Spurgeon.
While Spurgeon comes from a Christian household, he did not grow up in one of the Murfreesboro churches he works with today; in fact, he hails from the opposite side of the globe.
Spurgeon grew up in India, where his father, Dr. P. Joshi, operates a large evangelical ministry.
“He’s known as the Billy Graham of India,” Spurgeon says.
Spurgeon’s father chose to give him the name Spurgeon after Charles Spurgeon, the influential Baptist preacher.
“He told me later that he named me after him so I would impact nations with the Gospel,” John Spurgeon tells a Murfreesboro man.
Though it went against his upbringing, Spurgeon says that as a teenager he would fill his weekends with drugs, drinking and dancing in the nightclubs; he says he became addicted to the party lifestyle.
Hung over one Sunday morning, discouraged that a liquor store was closed, Spurgeon wandered into a church next to the store. Sitting in the back of the church, Spurgeon felt as though the preacher was speaking directly to him, instructing him to forsake the ways of the world and give his life to Christ.
He pinpoints that moment as the turning point of refocusing his life; Spurgeon would soon decide to enter the ministry, and in 2003, he came to the U.S. to attend seminary in Cincinnati.
After graduating, Spurgeon knew his Indian accent was still thick, but was told by a professor, “It’s not your job to make sure people understand you, it’s God’s job.”
He says he “fell in love with prison ministry” and knew he wanted to reach the prisoner population with a message of hope and healing. He also reconnected with a girl from India named Zion and fell in love with her as well. The couple married and lived in Canada for a time.
Spurgeon received a job offer at a church in Smyrna, and the two traveled down south. However, after leasing an apartment in Tennessee, Spurgeon says the church withdrew the job offer . . . and his wife discovered she was pregnant.
“I said ‘God, you need to do something about this,’” Spurgeon recalls.
As the young couple tried to find medical care for the mother and baby, a member of hospital management told Spurgeon, who had radiology experience in India, that he could possibly get a job at the hospital.
Spurgeon brought his radiology certifications and credentials to the interview, but quickly learned that he was up for a janitor position—which he accepted.
“God was humbling me,” he says.
After their child was born, Spurgeon went on staff at a church in Nashville, but eventually, even while employed at this other church he said he would come to services at New Vision Baptist in Murfreesboro to listen to pastor Brady Cooper’s messages and felt called to be there.
New Vision ended up placing Spurgeon on its staff, and the church has since grown its local prison ministry to serve the inmates and their families.
While Spurgeon has ministered to many, many people in Murfreesboro, he sees the work spreading far beyond the confines of 940 and the Rutherford County workhouse.
“I want to travel the world and work with prison systems all over, and tell them that there is hope,” Spurgeon says.
His vision includes reaching prisoners in China, in Africa and elsewhere, and one day writing a book about his tale of redemption, immigration, grace and service.
“Christianity is not a religion, it is a lifestyle,” Spurgeon tells his congregation.
Mainly, Spurgeon wants to spread the message that “If you take a mess, and give it to the Master, he will make a miracle.”
For more information on the prison ministry in Rutherford County and volunteering for the Love in Action program, visit newvisionlife.com/prisonministry or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.