With prayer and some tools in the luggage bin, a Pentecostal preacher who calls himself Bishop James Lee Outler has been driving up and down Florida for the last seven months. His passengers are mostly women, black and white, old and young. Many are regulars at Outler's Church of the Living God by Faith, located in Hallandale, a few miles above Miami. All share a common sorrow: a spouse, parent, child or lover who is doing time in a state penitentiary.
Outler, 47, began his bus service after a woman in his congregation complained that the poor were unable to take advantage of visiting days at prisons in the remote piney woods of northern Florida.
"I told my wife, 'We need a bus,' " recalls Outler, who calculated that he could charge as little as $20 (half-fare for children) for the 700-mile round trip, a substantial saving over commercial fares. Mrs. Outler's reply was to the point: "You're always telling people to pray for what they need. Why don't you pray for a bus?" Within a week Outler came upon an abandoned 1954 General Motors coach, talked the owner into selling the vehicle and arranged a $14,000 loan.
"God can do anything," says Outler. Having worked as a railroad track repairman, truck driver, mechanic, construction worker, union painter and home repairman before he became a Pentecostal preacher 12 years ago, Outler is pretty handy himself. He alone did all but major engine repairs on the 40-seat bus.
The typical prison pilgrimage begins Friday night in a Miami shopping center parking lot. The bus stops to pick up inmates' families and friends at designated towns up the coast. Outler drives in clerical suit and collar topped with a busman's cap. While listening on the citizens band radio for reports of highway patrol speed traps, he handles the casette-deck accompaniment to a rolling hymn sing.
Hairdo and perfume freshened at a turnpike restroom, the first woman debarks at the Lowell men's prison. Then it's on to Starke, Lake Butler and the maximum security big house at Raiford.
After napping briefly at a motel, Outler begins the return trip in mid-afternoon. The women often climb back on the bus emotionally drained, some in tears. Outler acknowledges the sadness but stresses the silver lining. "You all got the next time to look forward to," he observes. Later his voice rises in prayer: "Take care of those behind prison doors, Lord. There was a man named Jesus who opened the doors for Peter."
It is after midnight when Outler finally lets off his last passenger in the parking lot. He heads back to Hallandale for some sleep before the Sunday preaching begins.
Look on us, Lord. Take this bus in Your hands and lead us up and down the highway."