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Father, daughter both baptized at Virginia jail

October 6, 2018

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — The lock on the thick metal door buzzed open and Brittany Hunsinger strode quickly across the classroom to hug her father in a long, tearful embrace, both wearing jail-issued jumpsuits and flanked by guards.

Separated by life, law and jail walls, the father and daughter who both have had drug problems came together accidentally through the efforts of a jail chaplain, similar religious experiences and the desire to change their lives.

“I didn’t know he was in here until someone mentioned it to me,” Brittany said, sitting near her father, James Hunsinger, in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail’s east wing classroom. “I didn’t know he was going to be baptized the same day as me. We weren’t baptized together because they don’t allow male and female inmates to be together, but it was pretty amazing to find out.”

“I knew she was getting in trouble and I was afraid it was going to come down to (her going to jail),” James said. “I didn’t know she was in Bible study, too, or that she was going to be baptized. It was a good feeling when they told me.”

There was something else he didn’t know. James is going to be a grandfather. Brittany’s daughter, Kyleighann Marie Hunsinger, is a few months from arrival.

“It’s pretty wild,” James said with a shy smile. “I’m going to have a granddaughter.”

“She came as a surprise to me,” Brittany admitted. “She wasn’t planned but she is so welcome and I’m excited. I want to make a different life and help her to not lead the same life I have or make the same mistakes.”

“I need to make a lot of changes and I know it,” James said. “I have four children and Brittany has a twin sister and I want to be able to bring us together. And I have a granddaughter to take care of.”

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They say the Lord works in mysterious ways. Some of those ways are more mysterious than others.

On Aug. 29, 11 inmates were scheduled to go beneath the surface of a portable pool in the jail’s gym, a sacred rite of purification of heart, cleansing of sins, shedding of an old life and acceptance into the body of Christ.

The hot gymnasium reverberated with the mechanical grind of fans and blowers vainly straining to keep the air cool. A few correctional officers stood by. So did some local pastors. Two photographers, a couple of musicians and Chaplain Joseph J. Varaksa, who heads the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry Bible study program at the jail, were also there.

Eight women had made the commitment to be baptized that morning. Three men would be baptized in the afternoon. The Hunsingers were among them.

“No one really put it together at first that they were related because there are a lot of people in jail with the same last names,” Varaksa said. “When James realized that his daughter had been baptized in the same place and so had his granddaughter, it was a very emotional moment. There wasn’t a dry eye in there. It was very moving.”

Jail is a great place to find God. There isn’t a lot to do and there’s plenty of time to reflect, and Bible study encourages that.

“I’ve joined Bible study every time I’ve been to jail,” Brittany said. “I’ve wanted to change what I’ve been doing that brought me in here. Now, with my daughter coming, I really want to change those things in my life. I wanted to be baptized. I want to wash away all that bad stuff.”

“I never really got into it,” James admitted. “I mean, I believe in God, but I never really found him here.”

This time in, James said things were different.

“I went to Bible study and I started to feel God,” he said. “You know, I really wanted to wash away all of the bad things I’ve done and all of the things inside me so when I get out I can start brand new.”

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If you seek, you will find. Varaksa said he and those who help teach the class watch for signs of changed minds and healing hearts.

“There is a shift in people that you can see when they’re talking, when they’re sharing,” he said. “I remember when James came in, he was an angry man, sullen and quiet. His demeanor began to change and you could see it. One day he came to me and said, ‘Chaplain, something’s changed. I don’t what it is, but my chest feels different.’ You could see that happening.”

Both James and Brittany said that while some of their fellow inmates mock them, others are at least neutral and nonjudgmental, if not supportive.

“I don’t get much (flak) from other inmates. They’re good with it,” James said. “A lot of them will come to Bible study, too.”

“Sometimes, when you go back into the (cellblock) and talk to other inmates, they’ll want to come back with you,” Brittany said. “There are a lot of us who study and eight of us were baptized, so we support each other.”

Varaksa said changed hearts and good intentions can make a big difference.

“People come in here and they’re angry, they’re down and they feel like they’ve failed, that they’ve been rejected. They believe they are the island of misfit toys. They’re broken and no one wants them,” he said.

“Well, you know what? We’re all broken. If you went to the town I grew up and said my name, there are people who would say, ‘Oh, him.’ And that’s not necessarily in a good way,” Varaksa said. “When I came to God, I saw things differently, but did I slip up? Oh, my. I sure did.”

For Varaksa, helping someone along that path is why he’s in the jail ministry business. Making a difference in the life of a family and the community motivates him, as well.

“The studies show there is about a 25 percent reduction in recidivism in regional jails for inmates who get into a religious program,” he said. “If you can get that kind of reduction or any reduction, why not do it? Maybe it doesn’t work for someone, but maybe it will.”

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It’s not easy turning your life around.

“I remind the inmates that you’re not going to change overnight,” Varaksa said. “You got to get away from the old neighborhoods. You’ve got to get away from the drugs and the influences that got you in here in the first place.”

For Brittany, who has faced drug charges in Fluvanna and Nelson counties, as well as probations violations, that means seeking bond so that she can bring Kyleighann into the world outside of prison walls.

She hopes to remain outside of the walls to stay with her daughter.

“I have a hearing in January that will decide if I have to come back in and do time after the first of the year after I have Kyleighann,” she said. “I’m hoping maybe I can be in a home or they can make some arrangements so I can have her with me. Then, when I can, I want to get away from the old places so I can stay out of trouble. Maybe go to Richmond where I have family or live with my dad.”

For James, who has had several drug possession convictions and still faces charges of racketeering in Nelson County, that means making arrangements for a new life upon release, which could be years away.

“My mother lives down in South Carolina and I’m trying to make arrangements so I can go down there and start over,” he said.

“When you come in here, in jail, reality really comes back to you. When you get the drugs out of your system, you start wondering, ‘Why did I do that? Why did I think like that?’ You think differently on drugs,” he said. “My problems are with drugs, plain and simple. When they enter your mind, drugs take hold. You do things you wouldn’t normally do and you don’t pay attention to things you need to pay attention to, like family. Drugs take your mind off the things you really need to think about.”

“I really want to make a change. I want God’s help when I get out to stay away from the drugs and change my life,” Brittany said. “I don’t want my daughter to make the same mistakes.”

“Being baptized washed the old me away,” James said. “When I get out, I want to make a new home and take care of my family. I have four children to think about. And now I’ll have a new granddaughter. That’s what I need to pay attention to.”

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Information from: The Daily Progress, http://www.dailyprogress.com

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