Prison ‘volunteer of year’ works to spread God’s word

No matter where he lived and worked during the past 10 years – Altoona, Chambersburg or Johnstown – Rodney Hatfield couldn’t stay out of jail.

But it wasn’t because he committed a crime.

The 47-year-old volunteer minister’s faithful service and compassionate care for those incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Smithfield recently was honored by inmates and staff at the Huntingdon facility.

But forget the honor of being “volunteer of the year”; forget his place at the annual statewide volunteer banquet and his meeting the state secretary of corrections.

That’s not why Hatfield does what he does.

The only reason he agreed to have a story written about him is to spread the word.

“People can make a difference in the lives of these inmates,” he said. “Don’t forget about the people who are behind bars, the people who are seen as less desirable.”

Hatfield, who leads Sunday services at the prison, said there are many avenues for people to volunteer.

“People often want to give money, but one thing you can give that is precious, is your time. Some of their [inmates’] families don’t care. Yeah, they did something wrong. We all did. Some of us don’t get caught,” he said with a chuckle.

Hatfield strives to communicate to inmates that their lives have purpose, and the only way he believes anyone can realize their purpose is by aligning their lives with the standards of the Gospel.

“Your purpose in life does not end when you are in jail. You may be surprised for landing in jail, but God is not surprised,” he said.

SCI Smithfield Chaplaincy Director Sylvia Morris worked with Hatfield for the past three years.

“I was so impressed by a young man with a love of God and his fellow man, the incarcerated brother, to travel from Johnstown to Huntingdon [about an hour and a half commute] for a couple hours and no pay,” she said. “The only reward he gets is doing what he believes he is called to do, and that is to minister the Gospel.”

She said there are other volunteers who are selfless, but what stands out to her is the distance Hatfield travels. Over the years, he’s commuted from Altoona, Chambersburg and currently Johnstown, to minister Sunday services at SCI Smithfield.

“He relates so well with the men. He is a role model of what these men can be. If they ever get out of jail or if they never get out – he models to them the love of Christ and a better life, a better way of thinking. And he has done this for 10 years.”

Hatfield’s volunteer work comes after his job as an insurance agent to earn money for his family. His wife, Sharele, is a lawyer at the Johnstown Social Security Administration office. They have a 3-year-old daughter, Zion. Hatfield has two children from a previous relationship, Tashon, 22, and a daughter, Chartan, 27, whom he has supported.

Hatfield’s prison ministry melds into his evangelization role at Peniel Praise Community Church in Johnstown, named for the place where Jacob, a patriarch of the Hebrew people, wrestled with an angel until daybreak. The story encourages Christians to grapple with prayer, facing their struggles with God.

The men and women who reside at Peniel wrestle with drug addiction. The Johnstown church is a rehabilitation center with a capacity for 30 men and 20 women. Many of the residents are from Johnstown, but some may come from as far as the West Coast. The Church of God is a large denomination, and word gets around, Hatfield said.

Hatfield is a member of the church’s outreach ministry, evangelizing at prisons and hospitals.

“He’s a highly gifted individual, teacher, preacher and counselor,” said the church and rehabilitation center’s founder, Pastor Harold Spellman. “He’s a man of integrity and character. He does what he says he’s going to do. We are honored to have him.”

Hatfield was raised in Altoona, earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from West Virginia University Institute of Technology and served in the U.S. Army.

In his childhood, his family was poor, and he was the only black student in his classroom until the ninth grade.

“Growing up as a black guy in Altoona prepared me to deal with all types of people,” he said.

In responding to a reporter’s questions about incarceration trends, Hatfield said the inmates at SCI Smithfield are almost all black or Hispanic. Since he’s been preaching at the prison, Sunday service attendance has increased to about 100 people from 50 when services were conducted mostly by white ministers, he said.

“The justice system isn’t completely colorblind,” he said. Disparity between sentences for whites, blacks and Hispanic exist, he said. “There is a reason; a traditional mindset that has to change.”

Answering questions on the role of an improved economic environment in deterring crime, he said, “It can help, but until people change their character, nothing else is going to change.”

“You have people who grow up in bad situations, who find themselves in prison.” Others, he said come from “great families and are well-to-do, but they made bad choices,” he said.

He said people who find themselves in prison are willing to change their lives, and seeing good people who want to spend time with them helps that process.

“If they get right and start talking about right to their kids, they can break the cycle of doing wrong that might already be there. We go in there to be that person, to help them break the cycle.”

During the statewide prison volunteer banquet in Elizabethtown, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said volunteers make a difference in how a prison runs. “‘You can tell the difference between prisons that have a strong volunteer presence. The inmates act differently.'” Hatfield said, quoting Wetzel.

In talking about the benefits of volunteering, Hatfield touched on a paradox experienced by those who are unselfish with their time.

“If you truly want to be blessed, your situation gets better when you put the focus on someone else.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.