Prison Ministry is an…interesting calling, to be certain, and it’s not for the faint of heart. I work with prisoners who are taking college-level courses in Bible and Theology, Christian Education and Intercultural Studies. It’s rewarding to read the letters of transformation, and even more special are the times I get to visit a prison and see first-hand the work God is doing in the lives of the seemingly “unredeemable.”
Even with inmates who say they are followers of Christ, however, you still have to remember who you’re working with. I received a letter from one prisoner who said, “A couple sponsors sent you money to put on my account, but I believe they accidentally sent you more than what the course itself cost. Rather than apply the extra funds to my next course order (which I had already told him was our ONLY option), can you send me a check? I’ve spoken to my sponsors and they agreed that you should send me the money. They understand items like a Bible, pencils, notebook paper, etc, are necessities if I’m to do the work of God!”
After a little research, however, I found out he had never spoken to the sponsors at all. The exorbitant cost of the course was one HE had given them; it was no accident. He had planned this from the beginning, thinking he could take a couple college courses so he could look better to the parole board, and also make a little money on the side.
Thankfully, our university has a policy requiring written permission from a sponsor before sending an inmate a check for extra funds on their account. Not surprisingly, I’ve never received written permission from a sponsor.
Sure, a few are looking for college courses, thinking it’ll help them get out of prison earlier, but I must say, the majority of incarcerated students I work with seem to be genuinely trying to change their lives and learn more about God and the Bible.
I hate to say I “get used to” their life stories, because I’m still shocked at some of them. May I continue to be shocked and disgusted; Lord, may I never grow cold to victims’ pain.
One of the inmates I’m currently working with is getting ready to receive his Associate of Arts Degree, which is amazing. He’s in prison for aggravated rape, and I’ve read statements from his victims. While our guy busies himself writing essay papers and taking exams, one of his victims continues to live in such fear, to this day she has trouble sleeping, and keeps a baseball bat by her bedside. She says she still looks over her shoulder constantly, worried she’s being followed. Terrified “it” will happen again.
That breaks my heart, and I pray every day the victims of our incarcerated students will find the comfort and peace only God can give.
Sometimes you feel weird mentioning how well a prisoner is doing in college, knowing they still have victims out there somewhere. One female prisoner who wrote to me for a while (haven’t heard from her in a while, so I’m not sure what happened to her) is locked up for helping to locate children for her boyfriend to sexually assault, including her own nieces and nephews, the youngest being three-months-old. He took pictures of his assaults and sold them on the black market. Both he and his girlfriend received sentences in the dozens of years.
Talk about “God” and “forgiveness” all you want, but that’s abhorrent. It’s disgusting and evil and vile.
Meanwhile, I received letters from her which said, “Praise the Lord! I wanna take Bible courses, can you help me?”
“Yes, I can help,” I respond, “what are you interested in?”
Ya see, I’m not the judge. The physical man has already been judged, and it’s up to the Lord to judge their soul. My job is to help facilitate their education. That’s it. I offer assistance for what is perhaps the most important life change they’ll ever make.
And they do change. I’ve seen it. I’m friends with a man named Mark, who is serving a 65-year sentence for killing a man while high on drugs. Yes, I said “friends.” We’re not just associated through my work; he is my brother in Christ. I wrote about him in my first book, We Whom The Darkness Could Not Overcome. On two separate occasions, I’ve been asked to be the keynote speaker for a commencement ceremony at the prison he resides. The first time he received an Associate of Art’s Degree in Bible and Theology, and the second, he had earned his Bachelor of Art’s Degree in the same field.
When I hang out with Mark, it’s like being with an old friend, and I would fully trust him to babysit my grandchildren, to be honest. The change in him is mind-blowing, really. Just ask his dad, he’ll tell ya.
The thing people have to remember is that, while we help these students “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” (II Peter 3:18), we have NOTHING to do with the parole process. One man found out I work in prison ministry, and sneeringly commented, “I guess YOU want ‘em all released, eh? You’d like ‘em to all be walking the streets again now that they’ve found Jaysus!” He put a strong Southern accent on that last part, showing me his disbelief that prisoners can actually change.
He thinks we’re all being duped. This man thinks it’s a “shell game,” and that we’re being played by evil people who want free college (it’s not free, by the way, just discounted) and early release. Maybe some of the prisoners I deal with are NOT who they appear to be, but guess what? I’ll bet some of our non-incarcerated students are also not who they appear to be. Again, it’s not my job to judge. I help facilitate their Christian, higher education. Period.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Luke 4:18)
I replied, “No, I don’t think that at all. Some of these people have committed horrific crimes, and deserve to be EXACTLY where they are. They KNOW that, man, and many will even tell you themselves. My calling is to help them as it relates to their college courses, so that’s what I do.”
Then there are the victims.
I can’t speak for others, but as for ME, I never forget the victims. I can’t dwell in that dark place for long, because it’s emotionally dangerous, but at the forefront of my mind is the fact that, somewhere out there, the person I’m working with has at least one victim. More often than not, they have left a bloody trail of many victims, looking over their shoulders and sleeping with baseball bats. Prison Ministry is meant to neither downplay the crimes of the incarcerated nor dismiss the experiences and trauma of victims.
The crimes of those I help are awful. They’re twisted and sick and beyond comprehension, and I would NEVER dismiss them as trivial. The thing is, I can’t change what they did. No one can. Many times I’ll never even MEET their victims, but what I can do is try and help the perpetrator work towards becoming a better person. This doesn’t dismiss what they’ve done, but it DOES grow God’s Kingdom, and also helps to make our society a little better place. In many cases, the world has one less criminal to worry about.
Instead of a ticking, criminally-minded time-bomb, we have a Christian who is working toward a Bible degree. That’s about as good as it gets for me, I suppose.
That being said, I’ve seen first-hand the change salvation can make in the cold, dead heart of man.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
One crucial element in prison ministry is a sense of humor, although this doesn’t exactly look like you’d expect. I was talking to a fellow prison minister once, and he was telling me about one man he’d been dealing with who had killed his wife. Apparently he stuffed her body in a barrel and threw her into the river, but didn’t realize the barrel he’d used was one designed to float. Authorities identified the body, and he’s now doing a life sentence.
When I was told about the floating barrel, the other prison ministry worker and I laughed. Later, a man in our department (no longer with the school) confronted me. “How can you laugh at stuff like that? This man’s WIFE was killed, and you guys think that’s FUNNY??!!”
I suppose I understand his beef, so I was patient with him. “No, man, that’s not funny at all. It’s ghastly, and I can’t imagine it happening to one of my loved ones. But in this job we take humor where we can get it. The laughs may look a little gruesome, I guess, but I just received a Christmas card from an inmate who had raped a lady. He’s one of our students, but the lady he raped…she was deaf, man. He chose her SOLELY because she couldn’t scream. Now, that’ll give you nightmares. Her family has to live with that for the rest of their lives, having nightmares about what that beautiful, innocent girl experienced.
“As for me,” I continued, “I have to take comfort in the fact that he’s doing GREAT in the course he’s taking now, and that he claims to have changed. I don’t think about the crime, I think about the Christmas card, and whisper a prayer for her family. We can’t dwell on the past, or it’ll drive us nuts. We concentrate on the present and the future, and yes, we take laughter where we can get it.”
I figured if he didn’t understand, that’s cool, it’s not his calling. It’s MINE.
“You will open the eyes of the blind and release those who sit in prison darkness and despair.” (Isaiah 42:7)
I could go on and on about prison ministry, but I’d better wrap it up by saying this:
Who knows the darkness, the deceit inside the human heart? Who knows what horrors lurk there?
GOD knows, that’s who, and He chooses to love us anyway. He sent His Son to be brutally tortured and executed so we might have salvation.
I only know this: I once was lost, but now I’m found. I was blind but now I see.
And thanks to prison ministry, millions of other formerly-lost souls can say the same.