Sometimes when you’re not sure where your life is headed, it’s a good idea to look right in front of you. So it was for Gregory Vogt, then pastor of Orange Assembly of God, when he stood in front of his church and looked across Route 15 at a facility most people try their best to avoid.
This was about two decades ago, and the trees along the median strip hadn’t yet obscured the view of the Central Virginia Regional Jail (CVRJ). Vogt, then a new minister at the church, and his leadership board were discussing areas of outreach they could pursue in the community. The pastor’s gaze landed on the jail.
A passage from the Bible came to his mind. Matthew 25:36 states that those who help people in need are helping Jesus himself: “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Because he was still a new minister at Orange Assembly of God, Vogt decided to confer with Pastor David Sterling, a predecessor who saw the church through its move to its large new home on Route 15. Sterling reassured him outreach at CVRJ, which serves Orange, Madison, Greene, Fluvanna and Louisa counties, was part of the church’s plan.
“So I felt encouraged and confirmed that that was an unfolding vision, greater than myself—a continuance, if you will. Little did I realize that 20 years later, it would actually not just be something I did as part of my ministry; it would become the main focus of my ministry.”
In the beginning, Vogt helped prepare Christmas packages for the inmates and sang Christmas carols at the jail. He gradually increased his involvement. His wife and co-pastor, Denise Vogt, also pitched in. She served as a volunteer chaplain and GED proctor at the jail and later held a paid, part-time position as chaplain. Gregory Vogt took over her position when she left to become a chaplain for Hospice of the Piedmont.
As he spent more time counseling inmates, Vogt saw that he was doing what Jesus wanted him to do.
His gentle voice inflected with a note of wonder, Vogt elaborated on what he understood Jesus was telling him: “He said, ‘The thing that you’re trying to find as far as a place to have significant ministry with people is right there, within your sight. You’re looking at it.’”
With that in mind, he opened himself to the possibility with all his heart.
“I just said, ‘Lord, if a door opens, I’ll walk through it.’”
To prepare for a possible career shift, he began attending chaplaincy conferences, taking classes and getting trained in crisis intervention.
Three years ago, when the jail’s population was approaching 400, the authority overseeing CVRJ advertised for a full-time chaplain. Superintendent Frank Dyer called Vogt and invited him to apply. He thought it over while he was out of town at a chaplaincy conference and submitted his application when he returned.
“And here we are,” Vogt said with a smile as jail staffers milled around him. As they drank coffee and talked loudly among themselves, Vogt appeared entirely at home, quiet and calm. He exudes a sense of peace and quiet acceptance of the environment he has chosen as his work home.
Vogt grew up in the Unionville area and attended Orange Assembly of God when it was located at the corner of Nelson and Belleview in a space now occupied by the Church of the Nazarene. He went off to Zion Bible College, now Northpoint Bible College, in Haverhill, Mass., where he met his future wife. After graduation, he served as a youth pastor at a church in Laurel, Md., and then as senior pastor at Evangelist Assembly of God in Aberdeen, Md.
When the opportunity arose to come home to Orange County and serve the church in which he had grown up, Vogt accepted while knowing that the beautiful new building had left the church with a sizable debt. He got the church to the point where it is now debt-free.
“It was a blessing to be able to do that, to see that through—and to help the church that was part of my calling and my formation for the ministry,” he said.
As he matured as a minister, he found that working one-on-one with parishioners—“where you meet people at their point of need”—was one of his strengths.
Now, as a full-time chaplain at the jail, he devotes most of his time to individual counseling. He said that one of the key challenges of his job is helping inmates feel like they can trust him.
Many of them are in jail for the first time and have no idea what a chaplain might offer them.
“Of course, there’s a fear factor,” he said. He sees inmates looking at him with a question written pretty clearly on their faces: “Are you really here to help me with my spiritual difficulties?’”
He knows he has to act fast to establish a meaningful rapport.
“You have about five minutes to show them that you’re not the institutional chaplain, that you’re actually their chaplain,” he said. “You’re not just a staff chaplain; you’re actually here because they have a need and you desire to meet it.”
During a first meeting with an inmate, the message he aims to convey is, “‘Hey, I’m here agenda-free; I’m here to talk with you if you want to talk.’”
Inmates seek out Vogt for various reasons—sometimes because they’re having difficulty adjusting to jail and need a sounding board. Other times, they have received bad news of one kind or another and desperately need spiritual counseling.
“My office is a safe zone. It’s confidential. There are no listening and/or recording devices. They come; what they share with me stays with me,” Vogt said.
An exception to that rule, he added, is if he thinks an inmate might be at risk of harming himself or herself.
Vogt is part of a large team of men and women involved with the jail ministry. He said CVRJ hosts volunteers from 22 area churches of many different denominations who work with inmates in a variety of capacities, including Bible study, worship services and one-on-one meetings.
The volunteers all come in the name of offering spiritual aid to men and women who find themselves locked up in an otherwise cold and punitive environment—it is jail, after all.
Vogt speaks with pride of the expansion of the GED program and the recovery programs aimed at helping inmates conquer alcoholism and other addictions. CVRJ hosts Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and “Celebrate Recovery,” which has a religious component. Along with the jail ministry, these programs offer inmates some much-needed hope and the chance to better themselves.
He said that in his individual counseling, he meets with many inmates who have grown up going to church and want to renew their faith. He sees others who have never been inside a church and know nothing about Christianity. He helps them all as best he can.
The inmates at CVRJ are there for many reasons, none of them good. But with Vogt and numerous big-hearted volunteers involved in the jail ministry keeping an eye out for them, they are not as alone as they sometimes may feel.
Vogt said that he resists the temptation to judge on the occasions when he’s aware of the crime an inmate has committed or been accused of committing.
“I try to remind myself of the Sunday School teacher who had the greatest impact on me when I was about 8 to 12 years old—Sister Pound. She used to say, ‘Remember, but for the grace of God, there go you.’ I remember that.”