DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) — Since 1990, many Cedarville University students have been spending their Friday nights volunteering at the Greene County Juvenile Detention Center.

The opportunity is offered to students through Friday Night Alive, a program offered by Emmanual Baptist Church in Xenia. The program is led by Pastor Van Holloway, a Cedarville alumnus and visitation pastor at the church.

The program has taken place for three decades, and many volunteers are Cedarville students who have the goal of sharing the gospel with incarcerated youth.

“I had never considered doing any kind of jail ministry before this because it always seemed incredibly daunting,” Rebecca Rentz, a Cedarville junior, said.

“Being a part of this ministry has felt incredibly worthwhile and has impacted my faith as well. Sometimes Cedarville students who grow up in Christian homes and have theology classes and chapel every day start to feel like the basic truths of the Bible are mundane. Listening to these kids’ questions as they hear the gospel, sometimes for the first time, reminds me of the gravity of salvation.”

Andrew Glessner, a senior, has been volunteering through the Friday Night Alive program since March 2022.

“Every Friday night has the same basic structure,” Glessner said. “It is run like a youth group. We have kids anywhere from 12-17, so we normally play a game in the gym — a regular favorite is blindfolded dodgeball. Then we normally do icebreakers and get to know the kids before we have a sermon.”

However, volunteers say that with high turnover and reincarceration rates, consistent relationships can be difficult to maintain.

“It is a reminder to me of the long-haul nature of ministry. It is not a ministry where you see immediate impact every week. Sometimes kids will seem receptive in the lesson, but then a few months later they are back in the detention center,” Glessner said.

“Emmanuel Baptist Church has been incredibly faithful in this ministry for so many years. Pastor Holloway has shown me what it looks like to be consistent with faith that the Holy Spirit is doing work in the kids’ lives even if we do not always see it in the short term.”

The ministry has a large impact on not only incarcerated youth, but young adult volunteers as well.

“Through this ministry, I have been put in the shoes of the kids we work with. We are able to get a glimpse of their life in the center,” Shelby Holinka, a junior, said.

“A lot of these kids do not have any hope. We only hear bits of their life before the center, but most come from difficult families. But with that comes the opportunity to present the truth of the gospel to these kids that are in a desperate place. Most are receptive and choose to be there.”

Pastor Holloway explained how he has known one of the men through the program since he was a teenager.

“You do not always see immediate impact, but when you are part of a ministry for three decades there are clear moments of encouragement,” Holloway said. “He spent most of his teenage years incarcerated, so I got to know him very well.”

The man is now 27 years old, completing a twelve-year prison sentence. He still has the Bible that one of the volunteers gave to him years ago. He participates in two evangelical ministries that take place at the prison and often speaks about how the program was a lifeline for him.

Inquiries about Friday Night Alive can be directed here.