Transformation Church prides itself on breaking down barriers, both at its main campus in Indian Land and its first satellite campus in Rock Hill. But the church may have no higher walls to climb than at its second branch campus, inside the Kershaw Correctional Institution.
There, more than 100 state prison inmates, some of them serving long sentences, meet every Friday night to pray, sing and enjoy a spiritual freedom that defies the physical limitations around them. They watch recordings of the same sermons their fellow church members hear on the outside, and some of them go on to join one of Transformation’s other branch campuses after release. All of it is overseen by Transformation volunteers who make a weekly pilgrimage to the prison in southern Lancaster County.
What would eventually become a full-blown branch campus grew from a 2012 invitation from two dedicated missionaries for Derwin L. Gra, Transformation pastor, to speak to a group of incarcerated Christians at Kershaw.
“The men there loved it,” Gray said. “Then they asked, ‘Can we get some DVDs of Pastor Gray preaching,’ so we sent them some DVDs to watch, and then they said, ‘Can we just be part of Transformation Church?’ and we were like, ‘OK.’”
Today, Robert and Pat Vinroot regularly attend Transformation, but they hadn’t even heard of Gray when they started volunteering with inmates at Kershaw three years ago after delivering donated Christmas gifts.
“It was pretty simple stuff: soap, toothpaste, writing materials,” said Robert Vinroot, a retired airline pilot who lives near Waxhaw. “But it was like gold to them.”
Robert’s wife, Pat, found a copy of Gray’s book “Hero” while she was looking for reading material for some of her prisoners. When the couple realized Gray lived in the Charlotte area, they contacted him to ask if he would speak at the prison.
“We didn’t go to the website, and if we had, we wouldn’t have even bothered. He’s so in demand, it says he turns down most of his speaking offers,” Vinroot said. “But God didn’t even put it in our minds to check.”
Instead, Gray accepted, and he made an immediate impact on the group. Vinroot said the inmates identified with Gray’s story of growing up in a broken home in San Antonio, Texas. The Vinroots were just as impressed, and began attending Transformation themselves.
Joseph Walker was the sort of person who needed the church’s help. He went into prison in October 2012 after a string of DUI arrests. At the time, he was struggling with alcohol, his marriage was falling apart, and his father was dying. When he was busted for the final time just before the Fourth of July, his dad was already in hospice, and he managed to get the start of his sentence extended until after his father passed away.
While he was being processed for intake, Walker said he started reading the Bible because “that’s the only thing they have for you to read.”
“At Kershaw, my cellmate was in the church, and we didn’t see eye-to-eye on anything except God,” Walker said. “Then I read (Gray’s) book, and I could relate to a lot of the things he went through. ... I knew that I had hurt all these people in my life and I just couldn’t hold my head up. But that took all my heartache and pushed it to the side, because I knew I had no control over it and I put it in God’s hands.”
Watching the transformation of men inside the walls of Kershaw is powerful for Gray.
“I’ve baptized guys with gang tattoos, ex-atheists, ex-Muslims,” Gray said. The volunteers who work with the inmates make the difference, because as one prisoner told Gray, “They don’t treat me like a project, they treat me like an equal.”
Gray visits the prison congregation for special events like baptisms, but Walker was disappointed he didn’t get to see Gray in person before his release in May 2013. But while he was living in Charleston after his release, he learned Gray would be at Seacoast Church and went up to him while Gray was lighting a prayer candle.
“I told him, ‘You brought me back to Jesus,’” Walker said. “When I walked away, I was shaking, and when I looked back he was saying a prayer over the candle, and I think he was thanking God for bringing me back to Him.”
Now, Walker is working in his brother’s shop in Lancaster, doing welding and electrical work. He’s still active at the main church campus, where he continues to enjoy the church’s spirit of openness.
“I met a girl, and we both go to church there. I’m white, and she’s black, and at a more traditional church, they may not be comfortable with that,” he said. “They, they love everybody.”