the weblog of Alan Knox

stories: Prison Ministry Story

Posted by on May 20, 2009 in missional, service, stories | 9 comments

This post is part of my “stories” series. In this series, I share stories of how people live their lives in response to the gospel and as a demonstration of God’s love in order to teach us and to provide an example to provoke us to love and good works. (See “stories: A New Series” for more information about this series.)

I asked one of my friends to share how God is using him to serve in a prison. This is his story:

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I work in a prison, although my platform for being there is a little unique. I am a contractor for the prison through a local community college’s prison education department. Inmates at certain correctional facilities throughout the nation can earn an Associates degree while in prison. My position with the college is Instructor of Religion and I currently teach Old Testament and World Religions. I must say I came into this position by, what seems to me, divine providence. I had no desire or plans whatsoever to spend time ministering to inmates. Yet last summer I found myself right in the middle of another world that was right in front of me all along, the sub-culture of “corrections.”

A recent Pew report shows that more than 1 in 100 Americans are incarcerated. This comes out to at least 1% of the United States’ population being in prison (the highest number of inmates in the world, more than China and Russia combined). Yet, despite such an obvious segment of the population behind bars, I had no conception of that reality outside of the occasional documentary on the History Channel. And before I knew it I was standing before a classroom full of student-inmates who were ready to learn the Old Testament. The strangeness of the atmosphere almost immediately faded away and I quickly fell in love with this new and surprising opportunity. And I learned quickly that prison is a place of suffering.

What follows are just a few images from the lives of a few of my students. MJ was shot in the head when he was a boy and unexpectedly survived. He claims that an angel came to him in the hospital and saved his life; this encourages his belief in God today. He hopes to provide for his wife and pre-school daughter when he is released in the next few years. Mike told me he began using drugs when he was 7 years old (his parents kept marijuana around the house). After he was arrested for dealing (at 16) he turned to heavy using. He was using cocaine and heroine when he was arrested again at age 19. He says that prison saved his life; he would like to assist in drug rehab programs for youth in the future.

One student told me of his time at the US Penitentiary in Atlanta, a notoriously violent maximum security facility, when he would call his wife crying every night, just trying to survive. He witnessed another inmate’s throat cut in front of him and multiple beatings, an all too common reality in such maximum security facilities. William is finishing up a 20-year sentence for a drug charge when he was 23. He is now 43 heading back to a world that is now foreign to him. Another student, Jamal, has not seen his son in three years; he and his wife are in the process of divorce. Todd is at the beginning of a 30-year sentence and has recently been diagnosed with terminal diabetes. The doctor estimated he has 5 years to live, which more than likely means he will die in prison.

I could go on with stories of pain and suffering from behind the walls of prisons, from society’s forgotten citizens. The amazing thing about prison is that these stories are the norm. Each individual inmate has a story of suffering.

Apparently prisons were important to Jesus and he says that they should be important to us. According to Matt. 25.35-40, Jesus taught,

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. Then the righteous will answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will answer them, Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.

What we learn from Jesus is that serving the lowest of society is serving Christ. The poor that we are called to love include those who find themselves behind the bars of prisons. Thus, the result should be, I believe, that each inmate is the responsibility of society (especially the community of Christ), not simply a liability. Further, this leads me to believe in restorative justice as opposed to strictly retributive justice where only vengeance is sought through punishment. According to Christ, prisons are a place to serve. We have an opportunity to work for restoration instead of simply punishment.

Yet this really cannot happen outside of relationships. The nature of the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25 shows clearly that relationships are at the heart of all acts of love and compassion. Every example of service he gives involves one person serving another, which makes it clear that restoration cannot take place outside of community. There are scores of prison “ministries” out there but I have found that only few do a good job of building real relationships with inmates. It is easy to enter the prison every so often and deliver a “powerful” sermon but it is quite another to just be there with the inmates and know them and understand their world and their suffering. These relationships are invaluable and the potential for restoration is so much greater.

So what if our perspective on inmates is informed by a vision of restoration and compassion instead of anger or revenge? In short, what if we view guilty inmates as Christ does? When we see human faces made in God’s image as opposed to seeing a person simply by their crime we will begin to see the beautiful power of the gospel to make all things new. Jesus gave a transforming vision in John 13.34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Our love must not be dependent upon what we receive in return or the worthiness of the other; it must be rooted in the love of Christ shown to us. Therefore, let us love one another as Christ has loved us, especially our neighbors in prison who so deeply need it.


9 Comments

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  1. 5-20-2009

    Alan, prison ministry to those IN prison is great.

    It’s the men and women who come OUT who are difficult.

    They are badly socialized and the reason many are called ex cons is because they are cons. They may not go to prison again although many do, they are just very difficult to reform.

    Having worked with people coming out of prison in ministry for a long time I am not encouraged.

    It’s always good when you go INTO a prison and teach, preach and counsel.

    It’s the coming out and trying to fit back into society that’s so difficult.

    I am not convinced the “and you visited me” is about the general prison population. I am after a long time coming to the conclusion it is about one of these my Brethren. Not every one in prison is my Brethren.

  2. 5-20-2009

    Gene,

    Thanks for your comment. There are “brothers” in prison. One of the things that my friend is learning to do is disciple those “brothers”.

    By the way, I would love to publish your story of working with those who have been released from prison. Would you write something up and send it to me? (My email address is in the left side bar of my blog.)

    -Alan

  3. 5-20-2009

    Gene,

    I appreciate your thoughts on ministry to released inmates. Perhaps a major reason that so many inmates cannot switch back to life in society over night is because the prison system does such a poor job of “restoration.” The situation is indeed complex, but better efforts could probably be made to help make the prisons a place of rehabilitation, correction, and restoration. Organized education, for instance, is a powerful tool to bring hope and reform into an inmate’s life. In sum, I think we need a holistic vision of prison ministry that seeks to disciple inmates while in AND out of prison.

    I would have to agree with Alan that “brothers” are in prison and that they should be discipled as such. Regardless, those in prison are definitely some of the most needy in society, which compels the followers of Christ to serve them.

  4. 5-20-2009

    Geth,

    I appreciate your insight, especially given your experience in working with prisoners. I think that discipleship in prison and for those released is very important for rehabilitation.

    -Alan

  5. 5-20-2009

    Alan,

    Not trying to undo anything here, nor to suggest otherwise, but the “and you visited me” I always took as a brother who was wrongly imprisoned due to persecution, i.e. John the Baptist and the soon-to-come early church persecutions.

    So much about our “justice” system is horrifically ungodly. Incarceration destroys individuals, families, tax payers. There is no forgiveness, sometimes even among Christians, as a criminal record lasts forever, no matter how great a work of the Holy Spirit.

    I don’t know what it will take for Christians to wake up to the realities of the American Justice system. Most of us tend to support this system without question.

  6. 5-20-2009

    Steve,

    It would be possible to limit those in prison to believers who imprisoned due to their faith. However, that limitation is not actually in the text. Instead, that’s how it has usually been interpreted.

    How would you limit the others of “the least” in that passage?

    -Alan

  7. 5-20-2009

    Steve,

    I totally agree with your assessment of the American Justice system. I think that if more people understood what was going on there there would be much more call for change.

    Prison obviously is not working when around 70% of released inmates return within 3 years. The system is in many ways a mess. Unfortunately it seems that prisons always stay out of sight and out of mind. But I do think that Christians can lead by setting forward a positive example of restorative justice (a system that is both more economically and ethically responsible).

    The more awareness we raise in our churches that prisons are a part of our society and are our responsibility as the body of Christ will help raise awareness and lead to constructive change.

  8. 5-21-2009

    Alan, good question. It looks like when the whole passage is taken into consideration that maybe it shouldn’t be that way. As for the others, I’m sure it would be easy to limit those groups, too. We’re sinners after all.

  9. 5-21-2009

    Geth and Steve,

    Thank you for continuing this discussion. I don’t have experience working with prisoners, so I’m glad to hear that others are interested in this topic – and more importantly, that some are actually DOING something about it.

    -Alan