NEW PORT RICHEY
Inside a room with cinder block walls, they gathered to pray. ¶ Dressed in jailhouse orange and white stripes, two dozen inmates stood, bowing their heads as the minister spoke. The Rev. Marcus Carder thanked God for allowing the group to meet, and asked for guidance to lead them. ¶ Afterward came two hours of hymns and Bible readings by men whose wrongs outnumbered their rights, who yearned for redemption and hope.
Carder, 32, knows what it's like to sit behind bars, taking stock of a broken life and trying to find ways to make it right. Fourteen years ago, he sat in the same room of the New Port Richey jail as an inmate attending the very same Bible study group.
He realized that building a relationship with God could help someone like himself, Carder said, and that is what helped him turn his life around.
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The Monday night Bible study group is run by Calvary Chapel Worship Center, arguably the county's largest nondenominational church. The church's wide range of programs go beyond Sunday services to touch the lives of people who need hope and help.
A couples group teaches communication between husbands and wives.
A sign language group offers free courses for anyone who wants to learn.
A donation center provides clothing for those in need.
Some of the church's outreach programs are based on biblical principles: Church members who wash cars for free in
Holiday Lakes cite a Scripture passage in which Jesus washed his disciples' feet.
"If you live in this town, you hear of all the things they do," said Larry Johnson, 44, who attends the church. "You see them out in the community. They do a lot of outreach. And that's what drew me to them."
In the early days,
the few become many
In a way, Calvary Chapel Worship Center owes its origins to another Bible study group.
The church was founded by Bill Strayer, an accidental preacher of sorts. An Ohio native raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, Strayer went to Purdue University to study business. After attending his roommate's Bible study group, however, Strayer turned down business job offers so he could attend theology school.
Strayer, now 54, started churches in Indiana and Tampa, and also joined the staff of a church in Clearwater. While in Clearwater, a few Pasco families approached him about starting a church here.
Their first services were held in 1990, at a motel on U.S. 19. About 100 people came.
Today, the congregation's three Sunday services boast an attendance of 6,000. Cars jam the church's parking lot at 6825 Trouble Creek Road.
The church has a 66,000-square-foot worship center and 17,000 square feet of office space, together worth $6.4-million, according to the Pasco County property appraiser. The church declined to tell the Pasco Times about its finances.
Strayer said he pays attention to outreach efforts and programs at other churches to see what could work for Calvary Chapel. Still, his major goal is outreach.
"I think the Lord has used us in the community," Strayer said. "Because of our size, we are able to do more."
The Pasco jails have a chaplain: Bob Loeffler, a Presbyterian minister who counsels inmates at the jails in Land O'Lakes and New Port Richey. Loeffler works for Virginia-based Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, a nonprofit that has a one-year renewable contract with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
The Sheriff's Office doesn't pay for Loeffler's religious work, though. His income and money for supplies, such as Bibles, come from Good News fundraisers, such as church speaking engagements and banquets.
Aside from Loeffler, about 30 members of area churches, including Carder, stop by the jails weekly to hold Bible studies with the inmates. The Bible studies are tailored to various traditions.
In 1994, one of the inmates attending Calvary Chapel's Bible study was Carder. The group, led by Tim and Theresa Park, helped Carder transform from a drug addict with a lengthy rap sheet to a preacher who works on his own salvation by trying to help others attain theirs.
Carder went to church as a child, but his attendance waned as he got older. He had been in and out of juvenile facilities and jails since he was 12, and landed in the New Port Richey jail at 18. His vices were drugs and theft.
While behind bars, he started thumbing through a Bible, and one day decided to go to the jail's Bible study, where the Parks sang inspirational songs and talked of God's love.
Carder doesn't recall exactly what the couple said that resonated with him, but their words left him hopeful that with God's help, he could change his life.
After his release, Carder started going to area churches.
But old habits die hard, and Carder fell back in with the wrong crowd and started abusing drugs again. One night, after getting high at a crack house, he cried out to God to help him get on the right track.
"I said, 'I am trying to be cool, to fit in and run my own life,' " Carder recalls. "I said, 'Lord, I've played games with you, but if you will take anybody, take me.' "
His mother told him about Calvary Chapel, and he was eventually trained to become a minister at Spectrum School of Ministry, the church's divinity school.
"There were people there from bikers to businessmen," he said. "It was so cool. You've got electric guitars and drums, and a pastor who can make you laugh and think real hard according to the word of God."
Now, Carder and the Parks spend Monday nights with men much like the guy Carder used to be. And Carder isn't shy about telling them his failed attempts at leading a stable life, and how he succeeded at building a better one for himself.
"It's the highlight of my week to see these guys," Carder said. "We do have a lot of guys that still go back to their old ways. The purpose is to get them saved. We want them to live a productive life in society."
Finding true freedom but behind bars
Back at the jail, the men grip tattered Bibles and talk of their struggles. A few inmates with upcoming court dates or sick family members ask Carder for prayers.
Carder and others at Calvary Chapel say it's their duty as Christians to serve the community around them, whether in jail or elsewhere.
While he enjoys talking about the Bible with the inmates, Carder mostly comes to give them hope. His message: Never give up.
"God set me free when I was here 14 years ago," Carder told the inmates. "Even if you're behind concrete and barbed wire, you can be set free. But it starts with faith."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.
Carder, of Calvary Chapel Worship Center, and about 30 members of area churches stop by area jails on a weekly basis to hold Bible studies.
The Bible studies are tailored to various religious traditions and include two hours of hymns and Bible readings. Some inmates ask for prayers for themselves or relatives.
Other programs include: A couples group teaching communication between husbands and wives. A sign language group offering free courses for anyone who wants to learn. A donation center providing clothing for those in need.
Visit the church's Web site at