Romans 3:22-24: This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
That was the opening message by Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy as he addressed a crowd of inmates at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution on Tuesday. Though his life circumstance drastically contrasted from the men he was speaking to, he was there to tell them they weren't so different in the eyes of God.
"We all have choices to make and the choices we make us bring us to a certain point," McCoy, whose parents were both youth pastors, said. "But the biggest choice, and what I tried to talk to the guys about today is, that you understand it's never too late to build a relationship with Christ and that God loves us all. We all were created equal. There is no difference in us as NFL players or these gentlemen as inmates. God looks at us all the same and gives us all the same opportunities."
Several Buccaneers players joined McCoy in support of the Abe Brown Ministries Prison Crusade, aiming to give encouragement and uplifting messages through the Christian gospel to inmates at the facility. Players and inmates alike shared their testimonies and how faith plays a role in their lives, however different they may be. The visit was part of the Bucs' player-led Social Justice Initiative and the final event of the 2018 season.
Upon arriving, players were escorted into the chapel where over 100 inmates had gathered. They were received with thunderous applause and loud cheers as the jersey-clad athletes made their way up the center aisle to the front pews of the sun-lit room. In front, there was a raised stage where nine inmates stood with instruments, ready to lead the congregation in song to start the service.
McCoy sat with perfect posture, listening intently to a song that echoed words of redemption. Many players tapped their feet and nodded their heads with the music. By the time the band had moved on to the next song, some players had even taken to singing along. It was a moving rendition of a popular gospel song and each player seemed more affected than the last.
"People always think that we're going to come in encouraging them but the inmates here, the guys that shared their stories and testimonies, they encouraged us," offensive lineman Leonard Wester said. "I just wanted to share God's message that He loves them. He cares for them, He's going to pursue them and chase them their entire lives. He just wants to have a relationship with them."
Following McCoy and Wester were two inmates who shared their stories of how they came to be in the room that day. Both acknowledged that it was their choices, but not their character, that led them down the wrong path.
One man made a comment that resonated with many of the players; he was more at peace in prison than he ever was out of it.
"When Ronald got up and said that he had more peace inside than he ever had outside puts things into perspective of what a true relationship with Christ can do for your life," McCoy said.
Things got a little less heavy from there. Buccaneers Team Chaplain Doug Gilcrease led a question-and-answer segment, where the guys talked about everything from their recent causes for the My Cause, My Cleats Campaign, to what they like to do in their spare time.
Tight end Alan Cross apparently likes to cut grass, in case you were wondering.
The banter went on as players and inmates laughed at the light-hearted conversation. It capped off a session that brought a lot of perspective to the players.
"The fact that there are guys here who we met that shared their powerful stories, they had a great worship for us here today," Wester said. "Just getting to talk to and hear from them a little bit, it puts things in perspective a little bit that life is all about choices."
"What we represent is not really what could have been but just that light," McCoy added. "We all make different choices, we all make different decisions but the choices we made have brought us here. More importantly, the fact that we're here shows that we care and we understand that none of us is different."
The Zephyrhills Correctional Institution is home to 440 inmates, currently. It is what's considered an 'elderly' facility, with most of the men 50 years of age or older serving long-term sentences. Many of the players didn't know what to expect when going into the compound, but it was Chaplain Gilcrease that articulated their mission well.
"A big part, especially going into correctional institutions is what do those guys have to look forward to?" Gilcrease said. "Hope for what? I may never get out of here. So to help them and share that message of freedom that they can have in Christ, which gives them hope that whether or not they get out of there physically or not one day, they can spend eternity in glory with Him. Then that leads to purpose because if He's changed my life, then you know what? I have a purpose in this penitentiary to tell other people about Christ, too."
The mission touched on multiple pillars of the Bucs' Social Justice Initiative. With the visit being the last of the 2018 football season, it was Wester, who has participated in three events, that reflected on the program thus far.
"It's growing in a way and it's affecting people's lives in a way that I don't think we could have honestly thought it would," Wester said. "It's been really powerful. It's been really special up until this point."
With the holiday season in full swing, the Buccaneers have integrated the Social Justice Initiative with existing events and plan for more community outings in the months to come.