FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Stanley Ragin bowed his head. He clasped his hands in front of himself as he sat down.
“I thank you for life, Lord God. I’m so thankful for today,” he said. His eyes closed.
The congregation of My Father’s House Christian Church in Fayetteville prayed with Ragin, who was dressed this Sunday morning in a peach-colored, collared shirt and pressed slacks.
Every other day of the week, he wears green prison garb.
Ragin, 40, is an inmate at Robeson Correctional Center in Lumberton. The pastor of the small church, which meets in a Bragg Boulevard storefront, drives 45 minutes each Sunday to bring Ragin to services.
He is allowed only six hours outside the prison’s barbed-wire fence, just once a week. But what Ragin has gained in those six hours, he says, has already made him a free man.
Ragin called the Lincoln projects home while growing up. He saw a lot before he was 18 years old: the rich hip-hop culture on street corners, and drug hustlers not far behind in what he calls the era of crack cocaine.
It’s where Ragin witnessed his brother’s killing, something he does not like to talk about.
Ragin dropped out of school in the seventh grade. He turned to running drugs across states. He could earn as much as $10,000 for one trip. It was a quick way to fund a music career and film documentaries.
“I tried to utilize the illegal means to finance the good means I had,” he said.
It cost him 11 years of his life. He served sentences on drug charges in New York, Maryland and New Jersey, but even that never phased him. It was part of the lifestyle. His three children in New Jersey were left without a father.
“God’s been speaking to me for years and years. I was hard-headed, like most of us are.”
Ragin is now serving five years at Robeson Correctional on trafficking charges. In 2008, law enforcement found more than $25,000 of bundled heroin that Ragin concealed in a van while driving through Halifax County. He pleaded guilty.
Ragin was not nervous about five more years in prison. The idea of where his life was heading and the family he left in New Jersey worried him more. His youngest was a newborn when he arrived at Robeson Correctional.
He asked God one question.
“My prayer was for God to send me a teacher. No one taught me how to live. I had to learn by experience,” he said.
One day, Ragin’s case manager called him. A man named Reginald Johnston was looking to continue his ministry of working with inmates.
Johnston and his fellow ministers at My Father’s House operate an outreach program called Capital Ministry: Community Assistance Program Involving Training and Leadership. An aspect of the program, started in 2008, encourages church leaders to spread the gospel to jail and prison inmates.
About 60 people regularly attend the church, which shares a brick building with a pawnshop. There is no steeple, only a welcoming sign.
“Our ministry wants to take people in, even when their family won’t,” Johnston said. “We want to help anyone who needs it.”
Each Sunday, Johnston drives to meet Ragin at the prison’s gates. It takes Ragin’s mind off the routine of early mornings and 10-hour workdays.
Ragin and Johnston spend the 45-minute car rides talking. It’s not easy for Ragin to share what they discuss. Johnston is his teacher, a confidant.
Their time together is through the N.C. Department of Public Safety’s Community Volunteer Leave Program. Inmates at minimum-security prisons can learn to make the transition back into the community after their release.
More than 60 prisons statewide participate in the program, according to department spokesman Keith Acree. The inmates get minimal freedoms, such as attending church services or looking for work. Sponsors, such as Johnston, go through training by prison administration and must be with the inmate at all times outside prison.
“When I come here, there’s a warmth that resonates in my spirit. I feel blessed to be a part of this,” Ragin said.