Jesus Goes to Jail


Dick Kunnert and Ruth Fairchild make an impact in the lives of inmates at Winnebago County Jail through their partnership with Lead Like Jesus

Five years ago, after pooling together their passions and determining the greatest needs in their community, Dick Kunnert and Ruth Fairchild decided to take Jesus to jail. Now, at the Winnebago County Jail in Rockford, Illinois, they hold Lead Like Jesus Encounters for inmates enticed by the idea of turning their lives around.

Dick, who served in the public mental health field for 31 years, first became a Facilitator after he attended an Encounter. He quickly realized that LLJ was the perfect avenue for him to reach broken lives in his retirement.

“A lot of these guys know the Bible, and they’re approached by other ministries as well. But LLJ lays the framework. It becomes the structure of their spirituality, and then they can hang other things on it. But first they have to decide whose they are and why they’re on the planet,” says Dick.

Because of time restrictions, Dick and Ruth spread each Encounter training over four consecutive days each month, with two hours of training each day. So far, Dick has led 54 Encounters, for a total of 216 days teaching and mentoring men at this unique crossroads in their lives.

“We don’t know how long their sentences are and we don’t ask them why they’re there,” he says of the men he meets beyond security checkpoints in the detention center. “But there have been numerous times when we’ve seen men change their lives.”

Ruth, who used to serve as the Director of Prisoner and Family Ministry of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, was once approached by a man out in the community who claimed to have met her while he was an inmate. “I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I met you in jail,” he said. “I went through the Lead Like Jesus Encounter and on the fourth day, I learned about the importance of apologizing for what I have done. It was like God was speaking right to me.”

Twenty years earlier, the man had lived with a woman, and he confessed to Ruth that he didn’t treat her well. “Because of my mistreatment, she left and didn’t allow me to have a relationship with our daughter.”

The man went on to tell Ruth that two decades later, at the LLJ Encounter, he came to a conclusion. “I made up my mind: I needed to get in touch with her and apologize for how I had treated her. So I found her, and now we are going to be married before Christmas.”

Phyllis Hendry, president/CEO of Lead Like Jesus, recently teamed up with Dick and Ruth to help facilitate an Encounter at the Winnebago County Jail.

“I just can’t tell you what love I experienced for these men who have come to a place where they know they absolutely need Jesus to direct their paths,” she says.

“I had one gentleman come up to me on Wednesday, after having attended the first two sessions.  He said to me, ‘Miss Phyllis, my family was supposed to bail me out today, but I told them they have to wait until tomorrow.  I just have to finish up my Lead Like Jesus training!’”

This man’s account and other impact stories — like a man whose sentence was reduced from eight years to six months due to his testimony after attending an Encounter — are making a difference in the Rockford community.

“I see in our culture the tragedy that we have so many Christian people around; yet, they have no voice,” Dick says. He is passionate about his conviction that Christians need to use their voices to influence those around them, and he leads by example.

“That’s the challenge,” he says. “Are you using your gifts that you can help them be the best that they can possibly be?”