Carrying God's Word Behind Bars

by Rev. Evelyn Vigil, Chaplain for Main Jail

When his pastor told him that he was chosen to help at the jails in Santa Clara County, the Rev. Larry Leos had no idea that 25 years would pass and he would still be carrying God's word behind bars.

"Chaplain Robinson came to our church asking for volunteers. No one volunteered the day he was there, but the pastor selected several from the congregation. He called us into his office and said, 'You will be trained to go into the jail.'"

Leos is the only one from that group still active in jail ministry through Correctional Institutions Chaplaincy, but it is a big part of his faith journey, which started when he was asked to help with maintenance at a church on Saturday. He wasn't interested in attending, but the elders encouraged him and he went.

"That was the first Sunday I ever experienced the worship and Bible study and singing. It was totally new to me. I rarely attended church," he said. He became a regular and then became a deacon.

When told that the altar was open and he should put in his petition, "The only thing I would ask the Lord is 'What is the gift you have given me?'"

That's when he started serving in the jails, and in that time, "I have seen a lot of miracles" among the inmates when "they receive the Lord and they see the changes the Lord is making."

Anger and anxiety disappear and the men know they have a purpose in life, Leos said, noting that he didn't grow up in a faith. His parents rarely attended church, but he did attend a Bible study for First Communion in the Catholic church.

He didn't start attending church regularly until his late 20s, when he joined the First Baptist Church. Leos quoted from Jeremiah and Isaiah to point out that God knew who would be His servant, and it feels like his is God's servant.

He trusts God because he sees God at work. After the second break-in at his wife's shop, Larry was starting to fix the door when one of his wife's relatives, who had experience in this type of work, came by and offered to fix the door for them.

"That was God's answer to prayer," he said. "God is the one always listening to our petitions. Before I came here, I was praying, asking God to fill me. Let me focus on the ministry you have given today."

Rev. Leos leads a bilingual Bible study in Spanish and English at the Main Jail in San Jose. Sometimes he encounters the men he has served when they leave. "They'll come up and say, 'I received the Lord. I'm attending church with my family. I have a job. God is blessing me.'"

When Larry isn't in jail, he is helping his wife Fidelina at her shop in Gilroy. She does alterations, custom sewing and specialty work for Quincineras.

Many of their clients know they are Christians and often drop by for prayer. Leos used to lead a home church, but he now attends church in San Jose.