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Durham’s incarcerated find spiritual support during COVID

Pastor Tim Coles appears on a Zoom screen with a golden cross hanging around his neck. Apple AirPods dangle from his ears as he navigates technology with agility, never imagining he’d be preaching from a virtual pulpit   with a church rooted in a 155-year-old history. 

Coles chairs the Agape Incarceration Ministry at White Rock Baptist Church. A sacred home of community, hope and spiritual wholeness, White Rock’s outreach ministries have provided emergency assistance for underserved children and families, fed people experiencing homelessness and empowered the medically disadvantaged through health and wellness workshops. 

But 66% of these programs were suspended due to the pandemic, according to church clerk Sue Jaromn. However, Coles’ ministry continues to reach some of the most disenfranchised members of the Durham community: the incarcerated. 

Of the eight total outreach projects at White Rock, the directors of seven ministries made the painful decision to put them on hold due to the nature of the in-person work. The school ministry couldn’t walk over to Pearson Elementary because of virtual learning. White Rock’s financial assistance program couldn’t provide grants because fiscal giving had decreased. The health ministry remained partially active, assisting with two COVID testing sites. And the missionary circle wrote cards to Meals on Wheels recipients

Despite the challenges of reaching people in jail during a pandemic, the Agape Incarceration Ministry has been the churchs’ most consistent, impactful outreach program during the coronavirus pandemic. 

In the past, the ministry conducted in-person meetings at the Durham County Detention Facility. Now it relies on limited virtual sessions and communicating via handwritten letters from incarcerated people looking for spiritual guidance and emotional support. 

White Rock Baptist Church boasts a 155-year history in Durham. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Virtual constraints

The Durham County Sheriff’s website states that the detention facility “offers internet, in-person and video visitation at no cost to detainees or visitors.”

However, in March 2020, people incarcerated in Durham County were paying GTL VisitMe, a private service contracted by the facility, $2.50 for every 10 minutes outside their two free, 10-minute weekly Zoom visits. When balancing funds for court and bail bond services, this adds up to a steep increase in fees. 

It also makes external communication less accessible, which limits receiving steady emotional support from loved ones. Someone could speak to their partner on a Monday and their parent on Wednesday for a total of 20 minutes of social interaction the entire week. 

Agape Incarceration Ministry’s two-minute to one-hour prayer or chat session in person became a pipe dream. 

“The morale here [at the jail] is low,” said Coles. 

If he’s lucky, Coles hops on Zoom with someone at the county jail for about 10 minutes. Before COVID, he could counsel at least 15 people a week. 

But for the entire month of January 2021, Coles virtually met with that same number of incarcerated people. Most of his interactions come through the mail; he says he receives around 25 handwritten letters per week.

Pastor Tim Coles stands outside of White Rock Baptist Church on Fayetteville St. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

A much-needed outlet

Up until March 2020, volunteers from White Rock and other churches gathered outside of Durham County Detention Facility early Saturday mornings. 

Many of you are natural encouragers, and these brothers and sisters are in low places in their lives and need you,” says the White Rock website

Typically, the volunteers would obtain pre-approval by the county to enter the jail. They’d go through security and wait in a room where incarcerated people could choose to walk over to them for a visit. Depending on the number of volunteers, each person would receive anywhere from two minutes to one hour of prayer, counsel or simple conversation. 

“They need that outlet,” Coles said. 

Whether it’s an approaching court case or family turmoil while away from home, incarcerated people face problems that dramatically shape their existence. Coles says that “they are hungry for peace, community and fulfillment.”

Coles often speaks of an 18-year-old man he regularly encountered on Saturday mornings at the jail. 

“No one ever tapped into his potential,” he explained. 

Coles says he was doing “impossible word searches” for college-level courses and knocking them out. So Coles brought him more difficult puzzles every other Saturday to keep his mind sharp.

The man wasn’t able to be reached for comment due to the pandemic and the transient nature of incarceration. But Coles expressed the value of the in-person interaction that the young man had with the church volunteers.

“No one ever asked him to use his brain,” Coles said. 

Coles says the young man was denied the opportunity to flourish, and he did his best to encourage him to keep up the mental exercises, which helped him emotionally, too. 

“It kept him going.”  

Because of the pandemic, this type of personal interaction doesn’t happen anymore. Yet according to a Durham County Deputy Sheriff, incarcerated people in the county jail get one scheduled day of the week for visits, with “15 to 20 minutes at the most.” Coles and other volunteers who are fully vaccinated can drive to Durham’s detention facility and conduct a video visitation over a county-monitored computer.  

Despite the challenges, White Rock Baptist Church continues to serve the incarcerated the best way they know how: by simply being available.

9th Street Journal reporter Adejuwon Ojebuoboh can be reached at

Top: Pastor Tim Coles leads the Agape Incarceration Ministry at White Rock Baptist Church. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama