BURKESVILLE, Ky. (Christian Examiner) – A crowd of men in orange pants and white t-shirts gathers around as David Williams hands bags filled with simple gifts through the metal bars of a southern Kentucky jail.
"All of us have done some things we are not proud of," he tells them. "And your sin is no worse than mine."
He tightly clasps the hands of the men on the other side. His forehead leans against the bars as they pray together.
The bleak jail cell in Clinton County is a far cry from the stately Capitol where, for decades, David Williams was a political force to be reckoned with, one of the most powerful men in Kentucky.
Williams, dubbed by opponents as the "Bully from Burkesville," rose to the top of Kentucky's political food chain. He pushed an aggressive conservative agenda as Republican Senate president, and staved off an unrelenting push by pro-gambling forces to legalize casinos in the state.
In 2011, things began to change for the GOP stalwart. Williams won the Republican gubernatorial primary that year, but fell short in his general election bid to unseat then-Gov. Steve Beshear. Battered from a mean-spirited campaign, Williams found himself under siege even from members of his own party.
His wife unexpectedly left him.
His mother, a widow, became seriously ill.
And his friend, Circuit Court Judge Eddie Lovelace, died suddenly.
Beshear offered his political nemesis an appointment to replace Lovelace. Williams accepted. And he hasn't looked back.
"I found myself in this situation, and I just prayed about it," Willliams said. "I decided that it was time for me to come home. I'd had my time."
At 59, Williams had a chance to start over.
That first Christmas back in Burkesville, he found himself alone for the first time in many years. He was in despair. And he asked himself who has it worse than he does?
The answer was in the county jails across his largely rural judicial circuit.
So on Christmas morning, he filled brown paper bags with pudding cups, candy and oatmeal cream pies and headed out to visit the inmates.
"These are people that are in despair," he said. "The Bible identifies certain groups of people that we're supposed to pray for. I think prisoners are forgotten."
Shortly before he left Frankfort, Williams had been baptized at Buck Run Baptist Church. The religious rite was symbolic to him of the start of a new season in life.
Since he returned home, Williams has been giving much of his time to church. He attends four worship services a week — twice at the Methodist church, and twice at the Baptist church.
He says that now his faith is stronger than it's ever been.
"I will just say that I did not always have a Christ-centered life; that's just the best way to say it," he said. "It wasn't that I was dishonest. It wasn't that I didn't believe. I just didn't have a Christ-centered life."
Even so, Williams was always a champion for conservative Christians, representing their beliefs on hot-button issues like abortion, traditional marriage, and gambling. Those issues kept Williams in the hot seat, with detractors heaping on criticism and condemnation.
"Well, I was better than most of them, but being better isn't good enough," he said. "There's a lot of really good people who split hell wide open. It's not a matter of whether you're a good guy or a bad guy, a popular guy or an unpopular guy. That's not what it's about."
A long-time Methodist, Williams said he has become more devout since returning home.
"All of us still have our struggles, but people who know me talk about this calmness that's around me now," he said.
Three years since leaving the Senate, Williams still spends Christmas morning visiting people in jails. Now, he's accompanied by a few pastors and friends.
He says that he feels like he has a responsibility to the men and women he has put behind bars.
"I really think I need to know where I'm sending people, what they're experiencing," he said.
He leads the procession down the whitewashed cavern-like hallways, waiting impatiently for the jailer to unlock the doors. He is always the first one in, hugging and shaking hands with the inmates, some of whom he, as judge, ordered locked up.
At the third jail he visits, Williams meets with the two sons of a long-time family friend.
They are on the phone with their mother – a woman who helped to raise Williams. One of the men hands him the phone. He talks for a few minutes, and then hangs up.
He calls over the brothers, along with the other prisoners. He puts his hands on their backs, and begins to pray with them.
He leaves the room, and turns away as he begins to weep.
"I couldn't take a chance with them overdosing," he said.
He put both men in jail the week before Christmas on drug charges.
Burkesville is a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone.
Williams grew up with the men he's visiting. He knows the names of their children. And it's obviously difficult for him to put them behind bars.
"I tell them 'I'm not doing this because I'm mad at you; I'm doing this because I care what happens to you'," he explains. "And I don't want to pick the newspaper up or bump into your family at a grocery, and wonder why Judge Williams didn't keep them in jail because now they've overdosed."
He says several people have come up to him at the county fair, or on the streets, and thanked him for saving their children's lives.
Jim Murley and Williams grew up playing football and Little League baseball together. Now they attend Burkesville Baptist Church together.
Murley says Williams has mellowed since leaving the Senate.
"I just know he's very sympathetic to other people's plights now," Murley said. "Maybe more so than he used to be. "
Riding through Kentucky fog on his way for a jail visit, the radio plays a gospel song as Williams reflects on the ups and downs of his tumultuous legislative career.
He dismisses "Bully from Burkesville" as an unwarranted nickname pinned on him by political adversaries.
"If you want to disparage, humiliate or defeat someone, you try to tag them with something that will make people not like them," Williams says.
He says his opponents were "very successful" in demonizing him.
"Not that I've been a perfect person in my life, because surely I've fallen short many times," he said.
Democratic state Sen. Robin Webb said, despite their political differences, she has always had a great respect for Williams. She's delighted that Williams has found satisfaction serving in his current role.
"I think you temper with age, certainly," said Webb, an attorney who occasionally represents defendants in Williams' courtroom. "To be out of the political arena and go into a judicial role where you are nonpartisan, it's just different for him. I think he's well suited for it. I think he's doing a great job. I think he's happy."
In the Clinton County Jail, he greets a grandmother in an orange jumpsuit.
"How long you in for?" he asks.
"Well, sir, that's up to you," she answers with a nervous laugh. "I haven't been sentenced yet."
Williams pauses for a moment.
"You'll be in my prayers," he tells her. "Don't lose hope."
Kristin Lowry writes for Kentucky Today Frankfort Bureau where this story appears online. Used with permission.