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‘Chaplain Bob’ shepherds to captive flock

The Suncoast News
Published:   |   Updated: May 15, 2013 at 11:42 AM

At 5:30 a.m., a drowsy the Rev. Bob Loeffler was taking out household garbage in time to catch the trash pickup.

"Hey, Chaplain Bob!" a cheery voice greeted him.

Loeffler recognized a former county jail inmate to whom he had once ministered.

He had been working for the waste disposal company for three years, Loeffler's former charge told him, and was now deeply involved in a church.

The man is one of a number of former inmates at both Pasco and Pinellas county detention centers Loeffler says he encounters in stops at area stores and restaurants.

Even the man who installed his television cable system was a former inmate.

"The greatest thing for me is when I hear someone out on the street say, "Chaplain Bob!" and they come up and tell me how well they're doing," he says as he sits in a tiny office lined with bookcases at the Pasco County Detention Center, in the Land O' Lakes area.

Loeffler is with the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, a nonprofit organization based in Richmond, Va., that has been seeing to the spiritual needs of inmates and staff in correctional institutions since 1961.

He also works with inmates at the other county jail, Detention West Facility, in the New Port Richey area.

Before working in Pasco County, Loeffler, a Palm Harbor-area resident, spent eight years as a chaplain in the Pinellas County jail.

The man who says he is drawn to helping the underclass has his work cut out for him. Years of work in correctional institutions has left Loeffler with few illusions about the hurdles he faces.

Most inmates, he says were "troubled kids from troubled families. Studies show that the high majority of people in jail come from severely, dysfunctional, messed up homes."

But as tough as his task, his approach appears low key and relaxed.

An inmate greets the jeans-clad Loeffler as he walks down a hall and asks, "How are you?"

"I'm blessed," Loeffler replies and smiles.

Later, he explains, his reply - a standard one to the how-are-you question - is a lesson without appearing to be so.

"It gives me an opportunity to give them the message to say I'm blessed in spite of circumstances."

Many inmates appear to be acquainted with Loeffler, who keeps his smile and friendly approach as he walks around the jail.

He also engages in easy banter with correctional officers, to whom he also ministers when asked.

"He's easy to approach for the inmates.," said Lt. Kurt Kobel, a shift commander with the Sheriff's Office detention bureau. "He's been very helpful with the staff, especially with deaths. He speaks to them as a counselor and a friend."

Loeffler has a full plate. The entire cost of the jail ministry program comes from fundraising, which Loeffler oversees. Additionally, he supervises 100 volunteers who help out with fundraising and work with inmates.

But he makes sure administrative duties do not take away from contacts with inmates. He spends about half his day, he says, with them.

"I'm swarmed every time I go into a housing unit," he observes.

Many inmates are willing to hear messages about spirit, he says. "A lot of these people's lives are in crisis. So they're very open to spiritual things, more so than in prison, where lives are more settled."

He has had successes. He speaks of five teenagers with whom he has worked. They are awaiting trail for shooting and killing a drug dealer. "Three of the five have come to know the Lord."

He and the other chaplain, Bob Leko, a former correctional officer, have worked with the men consistently since they arrived, he notes.

Sometimes Loeffler can have a profound effect on jail life. He remembers a time several years ago when an inmate had committed suicide. His roommate had found the body.

"It was horrible," he recalls, adding the other inmates "blamed the system" for their fellow detainee's death.

Loeffler was called in to work with the inmates.

"There was a lot of hostility, anger," he recalls. "I just listened."

Finally, he told the prisoners he was going to pray.

"The response was so strong," he remembers. "Almost the whole housing unit prayed."

The inmates quickly settled down after that.

Operations Captain Ed Beckman does not recall the inmate suicide incident but gives Loeffler high marks for his touch with both prisoners and staff.

"He's a good ear, not just for prisoners but for the detention staff as well."

Usually, though, the crises with which he helps prisoners are not so dramatic. They involved routine tasks to ease life in jail.

A popular request concerns contacting friends and family.

But even those are not simple in jail. "Any time I make contact with families I make sure the family member is receptive and there are no legal charges, such as a contact order preventing a third party to contact family members."

Recently, Loeffler had just arranged for an inmate to get in touch with her boyfriend, who was in the hospital with pancreatic cancer.

This was typical of tasks he is often asked to do, he says.

Loeffler ministers to inmates who are in a facility, he says, built to house 680 prisoners and now holds 1,000. Cells that were meant for two now house three prisoners, he observes.

In fact, Pasco jails are so crowded jails in Citrus and Hernando counties are temporarily handling the inmate overflow.

Loeffler came to his work because of a religious experience after graduating from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., as a biology-psychology major. "It was a very real experience with the Lord," he says.

At Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, based in Deerfield, Ill., he realized he was drawn to the underclass and volunteered to work on Chicago's skid row.

"I had a sense of calling to work with hurting, struggling people," he remembers.

Loeffler has few illusions about the inmates with whom he works.

Last year, he said, there were about 21,000 inmates booked. About 95 percent of them will return to the community.

"Of those 95 percent, about 80 percent will re-offend."

But with a job in which changing only one life is a victory, Loeffler is optimistic.

"If we can take a number of those people and get them to know the Lord, they're not going back and victimize the community.

"That's a benefit to all of us."

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