October 2011

Jesus in Jail: The Ministry of Inez Booth

Mary Inez Booth (1913-2010) was a figure of legendary proportions in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the community in which she lived for over seventy years, Huntsville, Alabama.  Booth possessed the highest academic bonafides that the world could bestow, including a Masters of Music and Music Education from Columbia University in New York City and an honorary doctorate degree.  Her career was garnished with impressive accolades: she received numerous lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees; sat on the most powerful boards in the city; and had a day named in her honor by Huntsville mayor Loretta Spencer.  Booth’s steady consistency defied the limits of time: she taught at Oakwood University for 45 years; was the College Church organist for 40 years; and headed Oakwood’s jail ministry for 54 years.  She knew true love, married to Albert Sidney Booth for four decades, and lived to see her great grandchildren.  Her long life spanned 18 U.S. presidents, 11 General Conference presidents, and a world population of below 2 billion at her birth to just under 7 billion at her death.  Perhaps most impressive were the tens of thousands of people that she influenced for good.

I was privileged to not only be Inez Booth’s grandson (she adopted my mother when she was 16), but to be a member of her jail band for five years (1996-2001).  Each Sabbath, between 10-20 people would meet at Sister Booth’s house, load boxes of Bibles, Christian literature and snack food into cars, and drive to Huntsville’s two jail complexes, one outside downtown and one in the center of downtown.  At the jail the band would present 7-10 portable worship services to hundreds of inmates who stood at the front of their cells watching intently to singing, preaching, exhorting, and always a word from Sister Booth, each lasting about 15 minutes.  At the close we handed out the Bibles, literature and food, and personally spoke to the inmates.

The respect—“awe” might be more accurate here—that the prisoners had for Sister Booth (they called her “Gramma Booth”) was remarkable. Over a half a century her recommendations freed hundreds of prisoners that would have remained locked up otherwise.  When prisoners were released they often sought her out and visited her home to express gratitude.  She was inundated with letters of affection from inmates, some counts exceeding 3,000.  Anyone speaking while she talked during our makeshift services was liable to physical punishment after the band left.  At the prison ministry team’s approach a hush would come over the prisoners and they would crowd around, hands on the bars, often 10 deep.  Sister Booth broke up any hostilities with a word—even a look.  Above all, countless inmates gave their lives to Jesus Christ through the direct influence of Booth’s band.

What inspired this little lady from Southern Alabama to voluntarily spend thousands of hours in dark and drafty prisons filled with criminals well into her nineties?  In a word: Jesus.  When asked this exact question, she would simply reply, “Jesus said, ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’”  This text became the theme of her life, and she allowed no obstacles—gender, color, age, stature, religion—to stop her from entering places avoided by society.  By the regard with which she treated the convicts, it is clear that she held them to be Jesus. Ministering, visiting, working for the spiritual and physical freedom of Jesus: this was Booth’s primary concern and mission—the very essence of her Seventh-day Adventist faith.

One thing that was constantly on her lips--what Booth always told the prisoners--was this:

“Come to Jesus now. I know you’ve done bad things. We all have. David in the Bible was an adulterer and murderer, and God forgave him. And he’ll forgive you too if you just ask.”

In these simple but profound sentences, Booth captured the essence of the gospel.

Matthew 25:31-46, the passage in which Booth realized her life theme, pictures Jesus as asking one thing and one thing only of men and women on that great judgment day: “How did you treat Me in the person of others?”  Mary Inez Booth’s life was spent in a dedicated response to the question of her Lord.     

-Benjamin Baker