My Experience Exploring Prison Ministry

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My Experience Exploring Prison Ministry
By Patrick Welch- Hopewell United Methodist Church

Last summer, I sat with our Senior Pastor, Steve Morton as part of my interview process for the Local Pastor License School. While that path is uncertain and unfinished, one element of that conversation has changed my life regardless of where I started. Pastor Steve asked me, “Would you consider something in a prison ministry?”

It was at that moment that I recalled Jonah’s adverse reaction to God’s command to go to Nineveh. Now, Steve absolutely did not command, demand or require a prison ministry in any way. However, I did have to get my mind around the very real, very necessary understanding that God loves EVERYONE. Especially sinners.  Especially convicted people who sinned. It did not take long for me to realize that if I want to understand that Christ died for my sins, I have to understand that indeed, all sins are forgivable in the blood of Jesus Christ.

I was thwarted in my approach to a number of local prisons. I was surprised that not one would return multiple phone calls or emails. One location was able to have a secretary call me back to explain that they didn’t need any help or any volunteers. Not only that, they were not able to arrange one on one visitations or pen pal arrangements.

It was at this point, my empathy for prisoners grew into something tangible. I could not imagine that a prisoner who wanted to worship, witness or establish contact with someone would be left alone. After seeking some advice from others, I was able to begin a pen pal relationship with a prisoner last fall. That experience alone is astonishing. The man I correspond with is intelligent, articulate and has provided me with a spiritual insight that is nothing short of a gift from God.

I often read those letters several times to enrich myself and re-read scripture from another perspective that only magnifies the depth of God’s love and understanding. I use those letters in my own times of frustration and confusion. There is no doubt in my mind that these letters are beneficial for us both.

Soon after my letters began, a friend of a business client of mine in Philadelphia was able to connect me to the Christian Life Center (CLC) in Bensalem. They are a very large church with a prison ministry established in 2004. I was immediately accepted to participate in a worship service in the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) in Philadelphia last November. I was given a list of what to wear, what not to wear and what to leave behind.

Not being interested in a longer stay, I complied to every detail in that letter! I met the Director of Prison Ministry for CLC, Bob Sofronski and three other volunteers in the lobby of the prison. We went through security and were escorted to the chapel while I was told who was going to do what. I was happy with the assignment to stand at the door and say hello to the men walking in.

About 75-80 men arrived in more or less single file through the back door. Most of the men were extremely friendly and expressed thanks to each of us for coming. I tried to introduce myself by name to each person I spoke to and asked their names. For some reason, that startled them with a smile most of the time.
The two hour service began in song and I was amazed at how loud and enthusiastic they were. The style of this service is very charismatic and infectious. Several prisoners got up to speak and bear witness to how they came to Christ and exhorted others in the room to accept Jesus. Each volunteer that night (except yours truly) got up to either lead a prayer, song or a short message that was on their heart.

The primary focus of that night was a very powerful talk from Bob. As a former prisoner in CFCF, with a hard and difficult past, that chapel holds significant memories for him. He shared how he accepted Christ in that room almost 13 years ago and has been drug free and full of joy since that day. He was very effective in using several passages from the Bible to make it clear that we cannot save ourselves and how each of us must come to Jesus Christ. I cannot hope to effectively capture his style or his words here, but he got most of the men in that chapel out of their seats with their hearts dialed directly into God’s love.

I left that night a changed man. I have been back most Tuesday nights since then and have begun speaking myself. Starting in May, I will be leading a communion service and share my views on God’s love and communion on a monthly basis. I cannot wait!

Some people have asked me about what I am doing and what goes on “inside”. First, I can say that I feel like I am the one who benefits from this experience. I have never left that prison with less energy, hope and excitement than when I went in. I have heard other volunteers speak, I have heard prisoners speak and I have seen prisoners break down and cry when we end in prayer, laying hands on anyone who has decided to publicly accept Christ as their savoir.

This is not to say that there has not been moments of intimidation (never fear), or periods of “nonsense” between inmates using the service for socialization or recreation instead of worship. However, how the leaders in our group confront those situations are moments of grace and strength that have a power of their very own.  Those instances combined with the planned messages illustrate the very real truth that Satan is at work and at war in that prison.

Think for a moment about how Satan tempts each of us in our comfortable and free surroundings. It is very easy to be fooled by the distractions and trappings of suburban life and never realize who was behind the lies. There are no such distractions in jail. This is a place, where being a proclaimed Christian can put some prisoners at risk for their lives or physical well being.

This is a place where most of the men are broken and on their knees. Everything of value has been taken away, their families, their friends, their money, their clothes and their freedom. Every clever and comfortable thing that distracts you and me from God has been taken away. All that is left is the battle for the souls of the men in that prison. . Only God can help them know Love is possible, that forgiveness is possible even if freedom is not.

Having a very clear mission and a highly focused “audience” has made me go back to “First Principles” for perspective on how to help this ministry.  God is Love. God loves everyone, the suburbanite, the guards, the attorneys, the judges, the prisoners, everyone. Salvation comes only through Jesus Christ. All are forgiven who have Christ in their life. That is the mission, which is the focus of what we do on Tuesday nights. Once the men in that room find Jesus Christ, hope is restored and grace and strength to endure the difficulties ahead begin to grow.

“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.” Hebrews 13:3.