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Go to jail

Rick Davis

Did you know over 10 million people are arrested and go to jail each year in America? The prison and jail population is five times the number of people who attend Assemblies of God churches.

This is one of the most diverse, fruitful, needy mission fields in America. Inner-city residents, ethnics, handicapped, college students, and a variety of foreigners are incarcerated across the United States.

Visiting a prison in Texas, I met a young Vietnamese man who could not speak English and did not understand his imprisonment. I gave him a Vietnamese Bible. He had not seen anything in his native tongue for weeks. I did not understand his words of gratitude, but the joy on his face was easy to interpret.

Letters and phone calls from pastors and church members illustrate the fruitfulness of jail and prison ministry. During a recent phone conversation with Rick Harrison, pastor of the Assembly of God in Oswego, Kansas, his voice was excited as he spoke about the excellent response from the prisoners at the local prison camp. They have Bible study 5 nights a week and a Sunday morning worship service. Over half the prisoners attend the services, which Harrison indicates is a higher percentage than the people who attend his church.

A great ministry is taking place behind bars; however, a need for volunteers continues. Some of the larger state and federal prisons have many volunteers, but many smaller institutions have little or no ministry.

"First off, we have no chaplain, minister, or priest," an incarcerated woman said. "I have been told that occasionally someone sees the men, but the entire time I’ve been here we (the women) have had only two people from a Catholic church come three times for 10 minutes and offer communion. I crave real church, real fellowship. This Sunday we are going to attempt to have it on our own. None of us is very strong in the Lord, but we are growing."

The smaller local jails, prison camps, juvenile facilities, and women’s prisons are likely to be overlooked. The needs in these institutions are many and great.

Another inmate wrote, "Thank you so much for your literature. I am starved for anything. I appreciate all you have done on my behalf. I will also share this with others. We have no church here, so we are deeply grateful for what is done to help us."

Will you obey our Lord’s command? "Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them" (Hebrews 13:3, TEV).

Perhaps like Samuel in the Old Testament, you feel called but do not know how to respond. The advice he received from Eli was, "Say, ‘Speak Lord.’ " Thus seeking help and advice from others is wise.

The first step in establishing a prison ministry is to talk to your pastor if you are not the senior pastor. Such an outreach ministry may already be in place, or plans are under way to begin one in which you could be involved.

The next step is to determine the need in your area. (1) Contact the local ministerial association to see what programs are functioning. (2) Call the chaplain or the person in charge of religious programs of the local jail and federal correctional facilities and ask what programs are being provided. (3) Talk with the local judges or court officials to see what rehabilitation or assistance programs are available. (4) Search for agencies such as halfway houses, juvenile detention centers, and prisoners aid organizations.

After determining the needs in your community your next step is to decide which need you and/or your church can fill. Once that decision is made, contact the chaplain or person in charge and discuss how you can help. You may not be the only volunteer, so be willing to work into the overall plan of the ministry.

Next, arrange for orientation to the institution to develop your ministry. This will help weed out any persons who feel uncomfortable with the inside ministry. Perhaps those who do not feel comfortable could work with prisoner families, grade Bible studies, or be special prayer partners for those going behind bars.

Finally, do the ministry God opens up for you. It is better to start small and allow the ministry to grow than to begin a large effort that will fail for lack of interest and support.

A detailed prison ministry manual is available from Gospel Publishing House to guide and direct you in beginning a jail or prison ministry.

Throughout the entire process take time to pray. God’s direction is paramount to everything else.

Take a moment now for a simple prayer: "Lord, I haven’t thought a lot about going to jail in the past; however, I want to ask if You can use me in this ministry in my community, I am willing to obey You. Amen."