REMSEN - The prisons in Rockwell City and Fort Dodge have an interesting connection to a shaded farm grove nearly 110 miles away.
For the fifth year, Mark and Cheryl Juhl will host a Country and Gospel Music Festival July 14 and 15 at their farm, 11584 Polk Ave., Remsen. Thirteen bands from six states will perform during the two days to raise money for the Church of the Damascus Road, the prison congregation at the North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City and the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility.
"It's not a congregation that comes in and offers a worship service, it is within the prison," Cheryl Juhl said. "They have a church council like every church does, made up of prisoners, and an outside council, of which my husband is a part. That's how we got interested in it."
Although the church's services are nondenominational, it is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Mark Juhl was a delegate to the ELCA convention and saw a presentation about the Church of the Damascus Road.
"He came back and said, 'If there's anything on fire in our congregation, it's that,'" said Cheryl Juhl. "They had witness testimony from some guys who had been released. Those guys were just on fire with their experience of what they gained while they were in prison, and how they're doing once they've been released."
The next year, Mark Juhl became a board member of the church. Before long, the Juhls came up with the idea of this fundraiser.
"We personally are involved in old-time country music, so we had lot of friends who were entertainers prior to starting this," Cheryl Juhl said. "My husband built a stage out there in the grove. We have good sound for it, and it's nice and shady for the bands."
One of those old friends is Terry Smith, of Nashville, Tenn., who will be the headliner at this year's festival.
"I've been involved from the beginning," Smith said. "When they decided to do it, they called me."
Not only does Smith come to the festival, he said he usually performs at a church service at one of the two prisons later that week.
"Going through security was kind of a new thing for me," Smith said. "The inmates seemed very receptive and very involved with the service.
"The theme of my songs is to make God as great as I can make him, and make man as little as I can make him, and I don't think I'll overdo it in either direction," he said.
Admission is $15 for one day, or $25 for both days. Bands will play from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. July 14. On July 15, there will be a church service and gospel music from 10 a.m. to noon, followed by performances from noon to 6 p.m. Admission to the morning gospel service is free. Sandwiches, salads, snacks and beverages will be available.
The money raised at the event will help the Damascus Road with all the normal expenses incurred by an active church, as well as some special projects.
"The congregation has a program called re-entry," Cheryl Juhl said. "Where teams are established throughout Iowa to help an inmate once they're released from prison. They walk alongside this person for a year, generally, and help them when they get out with a lot of things they are faced with, like finding a place to live, getting an ID, having a phone."
The Rev. Paul Stone, pastor of the church, said Mark and Cheryl Juhl helped establish a team in Le Mars, and are walking with their first "exmate."
They also volunteer with the Storyteller program, where inmates record themselves reading a book, then send the book and the DVD home to their children.
"(Mark) probably comes from Remsen to Fort Dodge or Rockwell City 15 to 16 times a year; that's over 100 miles," Stone said. "He's extremely committed."
"We try to go to church services at the prison once a month," Cheryl Juhl said, depending on the farm schedule. "We've really gotten a lot out of going. You start out thinking you're doing it for the guys in prison, but you're not; you're doing it for yourself, because you get so much more out of it. Their faith is often so much deeper than you'd ever believe."
Cheryl Juhl said 100 percent of the money from admissions and food sales on Saturday goes to the Church of the Damascus Road. On Sunday the admissions money goes to the church, and the food money goes to the church's parent organization, Prison Ministries of America. Expenses for the festival are covered by sponsorships from businesses in the Le Mars area and Fort Dodge.
For more information call Mark and Cheryl Juhl at (712) 756-8851.