Jail and Prison Ministry ó a Job For You?†† Study No. 178
The last section of Matthew 25 speaks of the last judgment. A comparison is given between those who are given life eternal, and those receiving everlasting punishment. While we are definitely saved by Godís grace and through the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, God does call us to obedience and work, Ephesians 2:10.
Some of the jobs Christians are called to do are listed in Matthew 25. We are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and go to those in prison. Some of these things are easy and natural for us to do. Others we drag our feet; some we just arenít interested in doing. Yet, God has called us to be about His work as diligent workers in the field planting seed, plowing, and preparing for the harvest. Maybe some of you reading this article are interested in finding a new field to work. Pray and trust God to guide you to where He wants you to invest yourself on behalf of bringing others into His kingdom.
I didnít plan it, but somehow, a few years ago, I was called into a new phase of ministry. For the past six years, I have been involved in jail visitation on a local level. This has been done mostly at the Jasper County Detention Center (JCDC) in Carthage, Missouri, in the county where I live. Some has been done in the adjoining county at the Newton County Detention Center (NCDC) in Neosho, Missouri. It started when someone I knew was picked up and jailed. They called; I went.
Most of the people I visit are not hardened criminals. Many made a bad decision that was costly; some were with the wrong companions, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. Some have costly habits from which they canít break free. Some have financial difficulties and write bad checks in an attempt to feed their family. Of course, there are many incarcerated, who are accused of much more serious crimes. I visit those who request a visit with me. These are usually referrals from another inmate or a relative. These are the ones who appear to be more open to changing their lifestyle. They realize their way hasnít worked, and are looking for a better way.
Although I am the one who does the weekly visits, I have a support group that helps make it possible. Among the support group is the Womenís Ministry of the church I pastor in Joplin, Missouri. They purchase clothing for the women inmates that are in need. Sometimes there is quite a need. Only white undergarments can be worn by inmates. If they are incarcerated with colored undergarments, they lose them. If they donít have family members to supply them, they have none. In the winter time, the cells are cold and extra clothing or an extra blanket is furnished. Personal products may be furnished by family members, or if they have funds, they can be purchased at the facility. If not, they do without, or wait on the generosity of the guards. We have placed a box in our church to gather sample sizes of soap, shampoo, and toothpaste.
During these times, a helping hand in appreciated and remembered. Sometimes the thing needed most, is to know that someone cares about them. A notable favorite saying of mine is well-worth remembering. It says: "They donít care how much you know until they know how much you care." This is true of people everywhere. Being in jail is no different. The tragic fact is that many donít have anyone who really cares about them.
My prison ministry is now done almost exclusively through correspondence. A lot of it has involved graduates of the local JCDC and NCDC. Contacts seem to come from a number of other ministries.
The Giving & Sharing Newsletter reaches a lot of prisons and brings some response. Many inmates request study material and Bibles from this ministry. It is our goal when we receive these requests to assist the prison chaplains and furnish Bibles and study aids for their libraries.
SEED Missionary Aid Association is another ministry that was started primarily to furnish Bibles and study materials for foreign ministers. It has been expanded the past few years to include those in, or who have recently been released from prison. The major focus is helping them to adapt to life on the outside.
Searchlight Bible Course (SBC) also brings some referral contacts from other prisoners. Some of the jail inmates take the SBC with them when they are transferred to state prisons. Other inmates see them doing it and ask about it. Occasionally, other family members of the inmates inquire and enroll in the study course. Many times we have from twenty to forty students actively enrolled in the course. This is not a course of deep theological study. While scriptural issues and doctrines are taught, the emphasis is on introducing the student to Christianity, and helping them in their growth and walk as a Christian.
Also among my support team are several former inmates who have paid their debt to society, and are attending church. Because they benefited from the SBC, they have volunteered their time, and assist the director with copying lesson material, grading lessons, and corresponding with some of the inmates.
For the last two or three years, I have been a member of Coalition of Prison Evangelists (COPE), www.copeministries.org. There are several good reasons for this membership. It provides a support group and information for those involved in this type of ministry. It also provides educational material for the worker and the inmate. Membership in COPE is not limited to ordained ministers, so Christian lay workers may also apply for membership. You may wish to write COPE for a free copy of their booklet, "Effective Jail and Prison Ministry for the 21st Century."
As a licensed minister of the Church of God (7th Day), I am provided with proper identification from the General Conference located in Denver, Colorado. While this is sufficient in most cases, many of the guards and authorities at the local jails and detention centers are not well informed. They may be acquainted with the mainstream denominational churches, but some are suspicious of churches they do not recognize, or have heard about. They are concerned about people being involved with a cult. Being a member of a national organization such as COPE, provides easier access to do the work of the ministry. It also provides pocket-size picture identification, which definitely helps the situation.
There are some real blessings in local jail visitation. There are also some pitfalls to be aware of, and to avoid.
Sometimes by being there at a time when a person is facing a possibly serious situation, they are at the lowest point in their lives. Some of them are open to looking to Christ for the first time in their life. The pitfall in this, is that many are very good actors/ actresses. They are good at saying what you want them to say. You have to learn to read between the lines a lot. You must always rely on the Spirit of God to give you discernment, and know when a person is sincere. Sometimes you are able to lead someone to Christ, and then watch and help them make changes in their attitude and life despite the situation. Those who are really sincere realize that their situation is working for their good (Psalms 119:67, 71; Romans 8:28). They not only clear themselves with the justice system, but they clear their conscience before God.
Another pitfall to be careful about, is when an inmate asks you to bond them out or if someone else is going to put up the bond money, but they want you to sign a surety bond to be responsible that they appear in court. This is a dangerous position in which to put yourself, no matter how well you think you know the person. I personally do not recommend this kind of guarantee. If you are actively involved in this type of ministry, you may find yourself personally knowing an individual who is incarcerated. They may be related to someone you know, or live in your neighborhood. I live in a small town of 150 people. Yet, I have found a close neighbor lodged in the local jail when I went to visit.
From my experience you will need to set guidelines and limits, and stick to them.
Wherever He leads you, God will bless you in your ministry and service to our heavenly Father and for His Kingdom.
††††††††††† ó written by Earl Lewis†††††††††† W
Note: Those who would like to help write and send literature to Sabbath-keeping prisoners should contact Earl Lewis at 417-525-4211, E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or you may contact Richard Nickels at 307-686-5191, E-Mail: email@example.com. We also need people to help prisoners get established once they are released. The field of prison ministry is wide open!