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The Rev. Horace Williams Jr. wears a badge. It is usually tucked into his pocket, inconspicuously, but it's still there, metaphorically, adorned to his jacket, even when he doesn't display it.'
He is the chaplain for the Beaufort County Detention Center. But he is also an officer of the Lord. One gives him privileges in this realm, the other gives him status on a higher plane. He counsels men and women daily who have committed all sorts of sins, sometimes on multiple occasions. Breaking the Ten Commandments is a misdemeanor for some of his charges. '
Unlike his fellow clergy, Williams aspires to never see his flock again. "I do my best, if I am here (when someone is being set free), to walk with that person and tell that person to try their level best not to return here," he said. When your pulpit is located behind metal detectors, and even staples have to be removed from paper because they present a health risk, it puts a whole new spin on "salvation."'
"It's a totally different mindset in that you're dealing with individuals who need some in-depth love and tender care beyond that of people in the outside world," Williams said. "You have people who are incarcerated here and many of them become easily upset if you are not careful how you choose the words. You have to really just bulk down. Every tub sits on its own bottom. I say to inmates, 'You don't have to see the whole staircase, you just have to take the first step.'"'
Williams is an "aphorisms" person. He peppers conversation with sayings and metaphors, using the colorful language to inspire his orange jump-suited flock to think and feel. His calling cards are sealed, like Chinese fortune cookies, with life lessons inside. He hands them randomly to inmates as a matter of introduction. They open them and get a personal message, like "Whatever I give away is on its way back to me," along with a Bible verse and a contact number for Williams. The cards say "A Special Promise" and have a rainbow on the front. '
"I have these little things that I carry with me," he said. "I never know what is in a card until it pops open. ... We spark a conversation from that. On the back of the card that individual has all the information and can get in touch with me when they are released from here. If a seed has been planted in fertile soil then it is going to grow. So from a loving and caring situation I try and drop a seed."'
They are talking points, yes, but more than that they are extensions of Williams. When your church is surrounded by steel bars and your ushers are trained in lethal force, giving someone a rainbow instead of a sermon is sometimes the best move.'
The Rev. Bruce Richards is not used to receiving phone calls from fellow clergy. He is open to discussing religion with whomever is willing to discuss it with him, but when he mentions he is a Wiccan priest, the conversation usually stops. '
So when Williams called recently to ask for his assistance with an inmate in need he was surprised, yes, and moved. '
"He's a real powerhouse," Richards said of Williams. "He loves what he does and he is just very dedicated to it."'
The Beaufort County Detention Center is not a prison. It is a stop along the way. The inmates are either awaiting trial or awaiting freedom. Some stay at the center for an hour. Others are there for years.'
When a detainee wants counseling they first fill out a form. The form goes through the system and ends up on Williams' desk. He decides if this is a ministerial need or something a counselor can handle. If an inmate makes a request to see a clergy other than Williams, a Baptist minister, he arranges it. Ordained preachers of recognized religions and who head their own churches are approved for contact visits, meaning they can meet face to face. Unordained clergy, or anyone who does not qualify, can phone the inmate.'
This religious "outreach" program is a policy dictated by the government of South Carolina. Richards and his Wiccan religion are recognized by the state and thus qualify as contact clergy. However, just because it is a policy doesn't mean that every chaplain in every detention center makes the same effort to accommodate the prisoners as Williams does.'
"I wouldn't say it is the mindset of all chaplains to do this, but from my mindset I feel that everybody needs to be in touch with a supreme being -- in whatever way -- as long as it is positive," he said. "I wouldn't think that it is a universal thing that one goes to the extent that I go, but I am here to serve humanity. This is a correctional institution and I do my best to try and correct some of those unwanted infractions. If a minister or clergy can support that, it makes my job easier. Why not delegate some of the responsibility?"'
Or, as Richards puts it, "He's a Christian and I am not, but my opinion of this man is that he is trying to live Christianity and not just preach Christianity and that his concern is for the people that he deals with. I consider him to be a good man."'
Williams' life has had three consistencies: a fondness for education, a closeness with God and a desire to marry the two. After graduating high school he received an associate degree from Mathea Junior College and a Bachelor of Science from South Carolina State University and started teaching locally in 1964. In 1969, he became a teaching principal and later served as principal of Battery Creek School. He returned to school in 1978 and received a master's from South Carolina State. He worked primarily with special needs kids but would find himself stopping in after work to talk to inmates at the detention center. '
It was around this time that he took seminary courses at Columbia College and Morris College School of Religion in Sumter. He also began work as a pastor at St. Luke Baptist Church in Fairfax. In 1984 he took over the same job at Faith Memorial Baptist Church on St. Helena Island, where he remains today. Three years later he completed work on his Doctorate of Religious Education from Bethany Theological Seminary in Alabama. '
Williams retired from the school system in 1996. Two years earlier he had begun at the Beaufort County Detention Center. Multiple responsibilities is a reoccurring theme in Williams' life. In addition to being a full-time pastor and a part-time chaplain, the "retired" Williams serves on several local boards and is an instructor for the Beaufort County Extension of the Morris College Religious Certificate program. He has written a book, "Never Give Up," and is working on a second, "Life in a Cage."'
Still, it's his job at the detention center that occupies his time. Whether on site or off, his thoughts are never far from those who need him the most.'
"I told someone most recently that my job was 25/8 -- 25 hours a day, eight days a week," Williams said with a laugh. "It's a never-ending thing. I'll wake up in the ungodly hours and think about my day."'
A comforting smile'
Visitors to the detention center are greeted by a polite guard who asks if you are carrying weapons. Your keys are put in a locker and your identification is kept, ominously, behind bullet-proof glass until you return. This is not a comforting procedure if you are visiting for a short time, one can only imagine what the "check in" is like if you are staying for a few months.'
But Williams is a comforting presence. Despite his salt-and-pepper hair and his receding hair line, he looks younger than 65. He laughs easily and jokes just enough to put you at ease. And when the conversation veers to the scripture he has the crystal-clear memory and the persuasive tone of voice of a man who believes in what he's selling and knows it's important for you to buy. There is a sincerity to him, a decency, that is hard to fake but easy to accept.'
"(I enjoy) getting up, coming here, putting in a couple of hours a day, and seeing the expression on one's face who is bewildered and something I might have said to them makes them smile and gives them a little hope," Williams said. "My thing is that there is an array of ways that one can receive gratifying feelings by reaching out and helping individuals."'
Williams likes to know what crimes the prisoners he is working with have been charged with. He will look at the sheet before he goes in to talk and will be honest with the prisoner. "If I am going to assist you I need to know all that is bothering you," he will tell them. If they start to open up, if they go down that list of offenses, he will pay attention to what they emphasize and what they skip over. If they tried to avoid talking about something he will inquire further. '
Despite working in a potentially dangerous situation, Williams said he has never been in danger himself. "I have found that my being on the scene when an individual is acting out will quell rather than escalate the situation," he said.'
In fact, ask him to tell you a success story and, for the first time, he is at a loss for words. He counts so many he isn't sure where to begin. He tells a story about a recent inmate who he reached out to as the kid was leaving. "Try your best not to return here," he told the young man. He felt like he made progress. But what if the kid does return?'
"I don't feel that there was a failure," he said. "I don't feel that that wasn't a success. Jesus says that we will not be able to save the whole world. He had only 12 disciples and one denied him right there on the spot. If one out of 12 went astray, then how many others out of 300? So when an individual returns I try my best to get to that person as soon as I can."'
It is that badge again. There, on his chest. Not the one that gives him the freedom to roam the detention center halls, but the one bestowed by the higher power. That badge restricts his freedom, not allowing him to give up, no matter what. It's heavy, but he wears it well.