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Archived Story

Progress 2011: Clink Cleric

Published 7:30pm Friday, March 18, 2011

The Rev. George Marin loves to tell the story of his time in prison.

As a 16-year-old growing up in San Diego, Calif., Marin grabbed another kid in his 10th grade class, choked him and nearly killed him. His 10th grade teacher told Marin he was the angriest young man he had ever met.

The Rev. George Marin, second from right, of Grace Christian Church in Albert Lea, provides four worship services a month for inmates at the Freeborn County Detention Center. From left: Grace Christian Church members Kent Gildner and Sally Gildner, Marin, and Marin’s wife, Jill. -- Adam Harringa/Albert Lea Tribune

That teacher told him that if he didn’t straighten out, he would be incarcerated before his 21st birthday. That teacher was right, but for a reason he could never imagine.

Marin is now a third generation pastor. He says ministry is his whole life. Living in Albert Lea with his wife, Jill, the two founded Grace Christian Church in 1992. But for Marin, ministry has never been about preaching to a congregation from inside church walls. He said it’s about being active in the community and spreading his message to those who need it most. That includes those behind bars.

“In my family, you were either a minister or you were in prison,” Marin said.

His brother, Tri Marin, is currently imprisoned in Tijuana, Mexico, and he has a cousin who has been incarcerated longer than Marin has been a pastor. So in 2005, when Marin was presented with the opportunity to preach to inmates at the Freeborn County jail, he didn’t hesitate.

The inmates call Marin’s services “Music Ministry.” Marin calls it “Beyond the Walls.” But whatever it’s called, every second and fourth Thursday of the month, Marin and members of his church hold two non-denominational services with lots of singing — one in English and one in Spanish — at the jail they refer to as the Freeborn County Hotel.

Marin said he usually has about 20 people attend his first service — the English service for inmates in the general population — and often has upward of 30 attendees for his second, a Spanish service, which is for inmates housed at the jail as part of a contract with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. For Marin, the transformation he sees in some of them is “absolutely miraculous.”

“We are dealing with men in a very tough situation,” Marin said. “And some of them are there for serious crimes. When we see those faces come in, many of them absolutely hopeless, we remind them that Jesus Christ is their only hope, and things can start getting better from here. We just try to pump them full of hope and bring Jesus Christ to them, and we pray for the best.”

When the best does happen, Marin said it’s all worth it.

“Some are holding their own Bible studies; they’re encouraging one another,” Marin said. “We have people who are now a part of our congregation (at Grace Christian Church), whose relationship with us started at that Freeborn County Jail. Now they’re law-abiding citizens, some of them still on probation, but they’re giving back to society.”

Speaking for himself, his wife, and the other members of his congregation providing services for the inmates, Marin said the privilege is theirs.

“That second and fourth Thursday, that’s the highlight of our day,” he said. “It’s hard for them to believe it when we tell them that there’s no place we’d rather be than right here.”

His wife agrees.

“It’s so fulfilling,” she said. “Even though it’s not something you do for money. The Lord always fills us up. It’s just so worth it and so rich. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Evangelists

Kent and Sally Gildner owned the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Albert Lea for 33 1/2 years, and in 1999, they were going to move to Arkansas and retire. However, they said God had other plans for them.

As active members of Grace Christian Church, the husband and wife duo decided to retire in Albert Lea and continue their activities with the church. And after Marin began his services at the jail, that included providing guidance for inmates.

During the week between services, Kent goes back to the jail for those who want follow-ups. He said he listens to their stories, gets to know them and then talks to them about salvation.

“The stories I hear are very eye-opening,” Kent said. “We’re not there just for fun. We really care about them, and they feel that they see that. When they sense that this is not something that’s mandated by the courts, they really open up.”

Once that happens, Kent said sometimes emotions can get the better of both of them.

“Sometimes I’m crying, and they are, too,” he said. “I have heard the most heartfelt sobbing, and it can be a really emotional time. To see these men as the shackles fall off, boy, it’s amazing.”

For Sally, it’s no different.

“Sister Sally is such a softy when those young guys are there,” Marin said. “She has tears running down her cheeks. And she’ll begin to weep, and say, ‘We love you. Some of you are too young to be in here, but from a mom’s heart, I love you and I want to share the love of God with you.’”

Sally said it’s a blessing to see these men change their lives.

“After they come to know the Lord, and they have gone through this catharsis, you can see on their faces, the burden that has been lifted from it,” she said. “It’s just totally amazing what God can do.”

Real change

Marin and members of his congregation travel every summer, preaching in jails and prisons around the country. Marin recently returned from a 12-day trip that included 10 stops in nine states. Marin said spreading the word of God is his hobby, his passion and his privilege.

“This is what I love to do,” he said. “It’s not a chore. I have colleagues who look at ministry as being a chore. I’m not sure there’s a greater calling than to serve God by serving people. There’s just something about the places where people are incarcerated that holds a very, very special place in my heart. This is very personal to me. It’s a great joy of my life.”

Marin said everyone, regardless of what they have done, deserves to hear a message of love, whether they ever deserve to be released. He said that takes dedication.

“It’s hard to break the cycle of negative,” he said. “That’s why places like this need ministers that are not going to come in short-term. This is not a short mission trip this is a commitment every week.

“Some people have committed such horrible crimes that they should never be released. I’m not against that I’m for that. But that person doesn’t have to be treated like a dog. I think, ‘What if that was my son?’ I would want a ministry there to reach him. What if it was my daughter?”

Heeding a warning

Marin often uses the story of his 10th grade teacher’s warning when he ministers in jails and prisons around the country.

“I tell them repeatedly about that, because many of those men are in the same situation,” Marin said. “I tell them how God has changed my path.”

In 2006, Marin said he found a phone number for his 10th grade teacher on the Internet and decided to give him a call.

“I told him, ‘I want you to know that I have been married several years, I have two great children, I’ve served on the Albert Lea City Council, I’m pastoring a church and I’ve begun to travel around the world to preach the gospel,’” Marin said.

Marin said the teacher remembered him, asking if he was the same 10th grader he pulled off another kid — naming the other student, too.

Marin told him he was.

“Then he asked me if I had ever gone to prison,” Marin continued. “I said I had, and he said, ‘Huh, that’s interesting.’ But I told him that I didn’t go to prison for hurting anybody. I went to prison to preach the gospel of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

“Every time I lead somebody to Christ, it just reminds me of my salvation. It makes me thankful, and lets me know that just one person can really make a difference.”

The Rev. George Marin has never been sentenced to prison or jail. He and members of his church go to jail every week to share their message of love, faith and forgiveness.

Hero: The Rev. George Marin
Secret identity: Pastor
Base of operations: Grace Christian Church, Albert Lea
Superpowers: He has a heart for ministry.
“Ministry is my whole life,” Marin said.
“He cares for people, and he loves people more than anybody I have ever met,” his wife, Jill, said. “He’s strong enough to challenge people to get better, to have a better life. He’s down to Earth and can relate to anyone he has ever met.”
Kryptonite: Food. Marin is the first to admit he could use more discipline in his eating.
“And he could take more time to relax and rest,” Jill added.
Affiliations: Wife, Jill; son, Elisha, 18; daughter, Suzie, 16.
Origin: Marin is a third generation pastor who grew up in San Diego, Calif. Marin began his religious career as an assistant pastor in San Diego under his father, and went into full-time ministry in 1990 as a youth pastor in Indiana. In 1992, he moved to Albert Lea and soon founded Grace Christian Church, a non-denominational church.
Marin said his vision has always been to have a very community-minded church, touching all areas of peoples’ lives. So in 2005, Marin, his wife, Jill, and Grace Christian Church members Kent and Sally Gildner began twice-monthly services at the Freeborn County jail. It is now Marin’s favorite part of his job.