Chaplain says religious freedom is alive and well in federal government

By JASON PATTERSON,

After serving as a pastor for over 15 years Billy Wilson felt called to a new direction.

Wilson was a preacher so naturally he felt that he was being called by God to choose a new path. He was also being called by the federal government. Those two calls were for different reasons, but together they have led to meaningful work for Wilson as a chaplain at the Federal Correctional Complex in Yazoo.

Wilson, who moved with his family to Yazoo City in 2016, said many Yazooans who don’t have a reason to visit the complex may not realize how large it is. The prison is currently housing just over 4,000 inmates and has the capacity to house over 5,000.

“It’s down that long winding road, and many people never venture to that area,” Wilson said. “If you don’t ever have any business there, you may not realize that there are four separate federal prisons on that property ranging from a minimum security camp to a United State penitentiary, which is the highest level of security the federal government has.”

Wilson said that God called him to be a chaplain through two passages of scripture.  The first was Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

“If you keep in mind that we have all sinned and then go back all the way to the beginning of God’s word in Genesis, you see that God in no way created us to sin,” he said. “In disobedience mankind rebelled against Him.”

The second passage was Genesis 3:15: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers...”

“In wrestling with those two passages, what I came to understand was that it’s only God’s grace that separates me from any of the 4,000 men at that complex over there,” Wilson said. “All of us are sinners in need of a relationship with God that can only be accomplished through Jesus. Rather than seeing those inmates as just a bunch of broken reprobates, I was able to realize that but for God’s grace and unmerited favor that could be me.

Wilson sees himself as a Christian missionary to everyone at the complex and as a pastor to the Christians there. He pastors a small church on the campus where he preaches to about 150 men on Sunday evenings. Wilson said his services at the FCC are like services that he would lead in any other church.

“I believe that God called me to be a chaplain by allowing me to see this sin problem that we all struggle with,” he said. “The government also called me to be a chaplain for very different reasons. For all of the problems we may have in America, we still have religious freedom.”

Over 30 religious groups are served in the system nationwide. In Yazoo City there are over 20 religions served.

“They don’t require me to believe like those different religions or to affirm them,” Wilson said. “I am just required to open the doors, provide the space and provide the things they need to practice their religion. The beauty that I see in that is that religious freedom or everyone assures religious freedom for me.”

Wilson said that Ramadan is beginning, which is a major religious observance for Muslims that includes fasting from dawn until sunset for a month. One of his duties is to ensure that those observing Ramadan are served food when they break their fast.

Wilson said that he is pleased that protecting religious freedom remains a priority in the United States.

“Even as we see struggles with religious freedom in the news, I would say that religious freedom is alive and well in the federal government,” Wilson said. “I enjoy being something of a gatekeeper for that. Religious freedom is still alive in the United States, but it is always in danger. We need to be prayerful, and we need to protect not only what we believe, but also the freedom of others. That keeps us all free to practice as we believe.””

Wilson said that he has many opportunities to share his faith with those who need it most.

“They may find out that an appeal was shut down or that they’re not getting out as soon as they expected,” he said. “Or they may find out that a loved one has died while they are incarcerated, and because of their past mistakes they’re not going to be there for that time with their family. Or they find out that their children are going through something, and they’re not going to be there to help them because of the mistakes they’ve made. That’s when they come to the chaplain because they’ve gotten to know me, and I get to counsel them and point them toward the hope that I find in Jesus. I’m grateful for that opportunity.”