A Christmas feast was set for the guests to arrive.
As they shuffled in, laughter and chatter could be heard up and down the hallways. The smell of the steaming-hot turkey, roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy and corn rose from the tables and made the group huddle near the door waiting to load up and catch up with each other. Some have been coming to this meal far too often.
This feast has been orchestrated by 65-year-old Brian Oothoudt the chaplin for the Wadena County Jail for the last 30 years. He's been joined by Dennis Martin, a former Wadena County jailer, for about 28 years. Together the two seek to show some love to those that won't be able to join their families or friends outside the jail.
For one evening a year, which happened to be Thursday, Dec. 20 this year, Oothoudt caters in a full meal to give the inmates a break from what they said is normally bologna sandwiches. Instead of eating in their separate areas, the inmates all crowded into the media room, boys on one side, girls on another-high-risk, low-risk-didn't matter. They all ate well together, talked together and for them, that was as close to Christmas as they'd get.
For some within those walls, their family has become those inmates coming and going through the revolving doors of the prison system. Many of those present were back in for domestic assault, burglary, drugs or contempt of court. Most were white males in their 30s and, according to Oothoudt, most had less than great experiences with family gatherings.
"The family structure in America is pretty much gone, most of these, they don't have a family structure," Oothoudt said talking about the group of about 20 inmates. If they do have a family, many are in the criminal justice system, too, he added.
"You got to remember, for a lot of them, Christmas has never been nothing on the outside, just another drunken holiday," Oothoudt said.
Oothoudt, Martin and jailer/dispatcher Shannon Nielsen took turns reloading food on trays as inmates got seconds and thirds of stuffing and all the fixins. Then they loaded them up with pie, cake and ice cream. At that moment, if only that moment, things were going good for the group. The gesture of kindness was not lost on inmates like Joe Pugsley, who said this meal, and the weekly church services and Bible studies that Oothoudt brings to the jail were great examples of love, in an otherwise lonely place.
"Brian has a lot of words of wisdom if you are willing to listen," Pugsley said.
He said the kindness Oothoudt shows to the inmates shows them "you need to learn to love people," Pugsley said. It's not something they are used to. The inmates agreed that the type of love that Oothoudt shows is rarely seen when you're wearing the orange inmate attire.
Oothoudt is in refrigeration and farming businesses outside of his weekly volunteering at the jail. He also weekly meets with former inmates around Wadena to check in on how things are going. He even has a texting ministry where he shares scripture through texts with those in his contact list.
"I know this guy," Martin said of Oothoudt. "He's found people jobs, found them apartments, put clothes on their backs. This guy's been our go to person for years."
And while Oothoudt keeps coming back, ministering to the men and women that come to his services, he knows from experience that many of those he meets will have trouble adjusting to life outside of the prison system.
"If I got out of the system and I didn't have nobody to contact, to get off your back with a deposit, to get a job, that's a big challenge for somebody who's never done it," Oothoudt said.
"If they have not learned those skills by now they are not going to," Martin said. He's known a few that have tried but they find it much easier to get the monthly handout. "If you want something, you're gonna go out and work for it," Martin said. "These individuals have to learn that."
Nielsen said when she started at the jail 20 years ago, there were not as many inmates. But these days she's seen four generations of a family moving through the jail, mostly due to drugs. Oothoudt said that Wadena was isolated when he started. Now, you can pick up any illegal substance you want in the county and the crimes are getting more serious.
"The criminal population now, a lot of them are career and when you get to be career criminal, you can't make it on the outside," Oothoudt said.
He said the approach to helping today's inmates is different from it was 30 years ago because today's criminals know about drugs and the money they can earn with those drugs but they struggle to balance a checkbook or pay bills. So while he knows he can reach this population in the jail, he knows more needs to be done on the outside.
"Here's only a small touching point, but out there is where they really need help," Oothoudt said.
'It's a calling'
The chaplin believes in what he is doing, that by speaking to the heart of the inmates, he can help them. And by offering help on the outside he hopes to at least get them on their feet.
"Change comes from the inside, it isn't that people won't help you, it's that you have to want it," he said. "God changes the heart."
"It's a calling, he said when asked about why he continues the work. He said he does it because he wants to not because he has to.
When he was awarded for volunteer of the year by the Wadena County Sheriff's Office in 2018, he mentioned four things he wouldn't change about his life.
"I'd marry my same wife (of 49 years), have my same family, believe in Jesus Christ and do the ministry," he said. "Everything else is just temporal."
He spoke of the people he has seen outside of the jail that have turned their lives around. In their time ministering to the inmates, there have been thousands that have heard a message from Oothoudt. Martin said on average, while he was a jailer for 37 years, there were about 750 coming through annually. And even just a few success stories make it worth it for the men.
"There's no pay but the benefits are out of this world," Oothoudt said.
Wadena County Sheriff Mike Carr and jail administrator, Sgt. Bryan Savaloja nominated Oothoudt for the volunteer award saying that thanks to Oothoudt, a lot of people find God in jail.
"Brian is a good mentor to these people," Sheriff Carr said. "He does a lot more for these people outside than inside. He's a pretty amazing person in that way, to give his time to all those people is incredible."
While Oothoudt and Martin knew that their Christmases would involve extended families coming together to share in the joy of the season, that experience was not universal for inmates.
One of two female inmates, Nichole Shoultz said words couldn't express the kindness that she sees from Oothoudt and Martin. Her chance to see them is the only thing that can bring her a smile after losing her fiancé and a child recently. She said if not in jail enjoying that meal, she'd probably be drunk and alone. For her, family was not out there, it was in jail.
"If it wouldn't have been for Brian, I never would have made it," Shoultz said of the back and forth from jail. "They care greatly about us."
For this group, remaining at the jail through Christmas, there would be no presents, Christmas lights, music, and fanfare. But even in their medal folding chairs and views of little more than cinder blocks, comfort had found its way in, if only for the evening.
It wouldn't be long before the turkey kicked in, and the group would be sleeping like babies that night, Martin said with a laugh.