Marvin Moncrief owns the build of a bouncer. If need be, he could put the hurt on someone. He certainly looks the part of Harley rider, which he is.
This image undoubtedly gives him clout in jail. He has spent a great deal of his last five years in jail. But unlike the men he helps inside, he's free to come and go. That, he says, is only by the grace of God.
"I used to be haywire," says the Rev. Moncrief, chaplain at the La Plata County Jail. "That's the only way to describe it."
He's been the jail chaplain for three years, he says during a visit inside the 300-person-capacity facility in Bodo Industrial Park. He strolls around comfortably,
stepping aside for sheriff's deputies walking briskly down the halls. During a quick cruise around the high-security blocks, set in a circle with deputies stationed in the center, a couple of inmates wave to Moncrief through the windows and bars.
"I just seem to connect with the inmates," he says, whether it's through a shared love of motorcycles or a similar early-adult lifestyle. "I can share with them how my life changed. A lot of times they'll say, 'Maybe I can do the same thing.'"
It might help, too, that at 52, he's still a tough-looking guy. Respect doesn't come easily inside a jail, and any advantage helps. About 3,000 inmates come through the jail each year, and while Moncrief won't connect with each of the 400 to 600 of those he sees, he'll make a mark on many.
"A lot of guys are hurting in here," he says in his office, windowless but for a small opening in the door, now propped open. The cinderblock walls are painted white. Shelves are lined with Bibles and Bible study materials in two languages. "There's a lot of guilt. A lot of shame. A lot of hurt - what they're doing to their families."
At the county's blessing, Moncrief provides his services through Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, which supports several dozen chaplains in the nation's prisons.
Moncrief is "a very important part" of the jail," says Sheriff Duke Schirard. Although some inmates use the program only to break the monotony, "there are others who are sincerely interested in reforming. They're seeking this guidance."
Moncrief has a plan for them, if they're willing to listen. He and his volunteers offer about five Bible studies each week. He also oversees substance-abuse programs and adult education.
The Bible program he's most jazzed about is "The Truth Project," a 13-week course with accompanying DVDs created by Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family. On a recent Monday afternoon, nine inmates in orange or black-and-white stripes sit in metal folding chairs around a table in a jail multipurpose room facing a TV screen. Moncrief pops in a DVD titled "The American Experiment," whose theme is that the founding fathers built U.S. law on God's law, and we've gotten away from that. When the DVD is over, they'll discuss what they saw.
"They just love it. They just eat it up," Moncrief says.
With "The Truth Project" backing him, he tries to show inmates that if they are Christian, there are absolute truths they should live by.
"If you try to stick to that," he'll tell them, "you might not be where you are today."
It's not for everyone, but it works for some. And that's enough to keep Moncrief in the battle. He points out the sobering fact that about 80 percent of inmates are repeat visitors. Often, that vicious cycle includes drugs or alcohol, and he can relate to both.
"The only thing I can say is I never got to make it to jail," he says. "I was able to get around the law."
The former motorcycle-shop owner and Harley club member can't even say he just got in with the wrong crowd.
"I was usually the leader," he chuckles wryly. "I was usually the instigator."
Moncrief's life is filled with surprises. For instance, he's Canadian, as is his wife. They're working here on green cards, hoping to soon become U.S. citizens. That's something he's wanted for 30-plus years, ever since the seventh-inning stretch at a Minnesota Twins baseball game, when the fans took off their hats and placed hands over hearts. That patriotic act won him over.
They moved to the U.S. in 1997, and the next year, as he says, he came to the Lord. In 2000, he entered Bible college in Phoenix, and by 2004, he'd graduated from seminary.
He and his wife spent time in Durango in 1999 - "How can you not fall in love with the Durango area? It's beautiful," he says - so when an opening came up at All-Saints Anglican Church in Durango, he took it.
He also began volunteering at the county jail. After former jail chaplain Randall Haynes left in 2006, Moncrief took over. It's clear he believes he's found a good niche. For sure, it keeps him hopping.
The jail work is full-time and he's still at All-Saints. Fridays are his "sabbath," and often include horse riding with his wife.
"It's a busy week, but that's all right," he says. "I wasted 25 years. I'm going to do the rest with the Lord."
John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.