SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- Tech. Sgt. Sydney Sullivan, 375th Communications Squadron NCO in charge of the Mission Defense Team, is known around Scott AFB for being a dedicated, caring mentor to young Airmen. It came as no surprise, then, when he was inspired to channel his mentorship efforts to bring hope and faith to people behind bars.
“All these mentorship qualities I developed over the last 10 years in the Air Force, I merged with my beliefs so that I could touch people’s hearts in the prisons,” said Sullivan.
He began that journey about a year into his personal ministry training when he was approached by his chaplain, Danny Cox, about doing prison ministry.
And, for the last year and a half, Sullivan has accompanied Cox on visits to five different state and federal prisons in Illinois and Missouri.
“Once you’re in there, you’re in there,” said Sullivan. “You’re locked in. And then the guards usually escort you to the chapel, and they have inmates leading some type of praise and worship. Then we go in and speak.”
One of his first visits was to Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, a men’s state prison about 30 miles west of St. Louis.
“We hadn’t even gone through the doors to get to the chapel yet, and we hear all of the inmates singing and rejoicing,” said Sullivan. “We open the doors, and you can just feel the spirit of the men. There are about 80 inmates in there, and they’re pouring their hearts out.”
Sullivan said he is most affected by the men who ask him to pray with them for strength as they go through a hard time, such as the loss of a family member.
“There was a gentleman – it hurt my heart – he was in prison, and his 22-year-old son had died, and he was just hurting so bad,” said Sullivan. “For you to be a father not able to connect with your family, that hurts a lot. I can’t even imagine what that feels like.”
Cox, who leads the program and ministers at the Assembly of God church in O’Fallon, Illinois, describes Sullivan as “very studious” and “a very important part of the team.”
For Cox, his own journey toward prison ministry came to him after serving a 10-year sentence for selling drugs in the 1990s.
“After I got out of prison, I sought to keep others from making the same mistakes I did,” said Cox. “And because I’ve done time in 18 different prisons in eight different states, I gain a lot of respect immediately.”
He said the program’s mission is to give faith and hope to people who are often considered “throw-aways” or “second-class citizens.”
Sullivan echoed this idea, explaining the need to reach people who are often forgotten by society.
“Outside of that jumpsuit, they are still humans at the end of the day. They have to be rooted in something. For me to provide something positive is going to go so much farther than them just staring at their 5x8 cell on a daily basis.”
For Sullivan, his work is about bringing hope and positivity to those living in the bleakest of situations.
“If you’re going to take that step forward and latch onto an opportunity, who am I not to pull you behind me and try to help you grow?”