Baptist ministers John and Deloris Hill visited their first prison together in 1984. “As we were leaving the first time, I felt like I was floating. I knew I wasn’t actually in the air, but it was a supernatural experience,” the Rev. John Hill said.
Since then, the Columbia couple has ministered to thousands of inmates at prisons and jails across Missouri.
“We believe that every person that God has called is not called to be a pastor in a church,” the Rev. Deloris Hill said. “Some visit sick, some visit prisons. God has called us to do what we’re doing.”
The Hills’ commitment hasn’t wavered after almost 20 years in the jails and prisons.
“It’s easy to have a big church and a good choir in a nice community where everybody’s in the upper-income bracket,” said Maj. Warren Brewer, who oversees the Boone County Jail. “It’s much different to come into a jail and try to minister to people who have strayed or try to teach those who don’t know about faith.”
Brewer said 15 to 20 people from several churches visit the jail regularly. The Hills also minister at Moberly Correctional Center three evenings each month.
Services begin with introductions of both the pastors and the prisoners, then John pulls out his electric guitar and starts to play.
“(The inmates) love praise songs. They actually lift their hands and praise God,” said Deloris, who sings with her husband at the services.
After they preach, the Hills lead an altar call to allow inmates to “ask for special prayer or ask to reconfigure their lives to the Lord,” John said.
In 1982, two years before they began their prison ministry, the couple was ordained at the Second Missionary Baptist Church in Columbia. The Rev. Clyde Ruffin, interim pastor for the church, said the Hills have recently helped create a connection for others at Second Baptist to get involved in prison ministry.
“The Hills have a special calling for this type of ministry,” Ruffin said. “They present the Gospel in a way that is non-threatening and easy to understand. It allows the inmates to understand that they can improve their lives while in prison.”
The couple has also ministered behind the walls of the Jefferson City Correctional Center, which houses maximum-security inmates. “Sometimes when those prison doors close, you can really feel the evil, the oppressive feeling,” Deloris said. “It really weighs on you.”
The Hills said they feel a divine calling to serve in prisons. “It wasn’t like we had a bright idea and thought, ‘Hey, we think we’ll go into the prisons,’” John said.
Deloris has always been aware of her husband’s interest in prisons; he “felt a burden for the incarcerated” at a young age, she said.
Deloris and John, both 53, grew up living one street apart and started dating when they were 14. John said he would notice Deloris when she rode her bicycle around Worley and Lynn streets. John said he eventually overcame his shyness and the pair became sweethearts. This year they celebrated their 34th wedding anniversary. The couple also works together at Truman Veterans Hospital — Deloris as an ophthalmology nurse and John in the transportation department.
On occasion, the Hills interact with inmates who have been released. “When they get on the outside, we like to see them in a new light, not remember them as inmates,” John said.
One of the couple’s favorite success stories is that of Greg Ogden, who was once a regular at the Moberly prison services. After he was released, he frequently visited the Hills.
“I’d go to their house when I was struggling and pray with them,” Ogden said. “When I was a young Christian, they were strong. They were both very on fire for God.”
Ogden later went on to Central Bible College in Springfield and graduated with a degree in preaching, evangelism and Bible study. He has volunteered in prison ministry since 1989 throughout the Midwest.
“Probably the greatest thing the Hills did is build a relationship with me,” he said. “It was ongoing, influential, encouraging, meaningful, real.”
The Hills said they will continue their work with inmates, but will also remain open to a possible change in calling.
“One of the Scriptures tells us that we walk by faith, not by sight,” John said. “It’s difficult to say what tomorrow might bring.”