Inmate chaplain provides light, liberation behind bars

Shelby Smith, the inmate chaplain at Montezuma County Jail, has been working as a volunteer for five years. Enlargephoto

Mary Shinn/Cortez Journal

Shelby Smith, the inmate chaplain at Montezuma County Jail, has been working as a volunteer for five years.

Shelby Smith never saw himself as a minister, but now his favorite chair in the world is by the window in the jail where he meets with up to 20 inmates a week at the Montezuma County Jail.

“My goal is to help them see what they could be,” he said.

Smith was asked to visit with an inmate five years ago by a fellow member of the Church of Christ, and now he is the inmate chaplain.

That first inmate recommended he speak to a second, and his ministry grew slowly from there until he took over as chaplain three years ago.

He estimates that he has spoken with 400 people. He was able to meet with about 200 of them for about a year.

He approaches his work with an uncritical ear and lets inmates choose whether they will cover Scripture during a meeting. Requests to meet can flow both ways between Smith and an inmate.

Some bring him their weariness and grief. Others bring questions about faith.

“Some really want to know, how do I become what I’m supposed to be,” Smith said.

When they do ask to read Scripture, he often covers the tale of Joseph, who was sold by his brother into slavery and eventually ended up in jail, in hopes they will identify with Joseph’s predicament. He gives away about 15 to 20 Bibles a month.

He often asks them to consider what they need to do differently to avoid returning to jail.

Many of the inmates struggle with addition, even if it’s not what brought them there, he said he finds it tragic how drugs, especially methamphetamine, have infiltrated small-town America.

Smith is a retired middle and high school English teacher who said he was cut out to teach eighth grade. Even in casual conversation he speaks with quiet authority that commands respect.

“I belonged with those rapscallions,” he said.

Retirement allows him to dedicate three to four hours several days a week to his work.

Jail ministry is a project of the Cortez Ministerial Alliance. As a member of the alliance and as inmate chaplain, Smith also organizes meetings for inmates with ministers of particular faiths including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Catholic Churches among others.

He is also part of the team that delivers devotionals during the jail services on Saturday afternoons. The services sometimes last several hours because they must be delivered to several different groups of inmates.

Smith is a member of the Highway Church of Christ on Highway 491. His church is conservative and Bible-centered, but it is not part of a denominational group.

“I think any religious person feels an obligation to try to be there for somebody else,” he said.