Serving in Prison Ministry is incredibly challenging at times. There are those unexpected moments of anger from an inmate, blatant disregard for the ground rules and sadness at seeing and hearing about so much emotional and physical pain and suffering. There is also great joy in this Ministry as we experience much time in God’s Word preparing for our messages, listening to the encouraging testimonies from men whose lives are being touched by God and, on those rare but joyful occasions, seeing a newly returning citizen attend your church or hear about them getting plugged and doing well in all areas of life.
I recently had an interesting encounter with some inmates that left me concerned about the integrity of our Ministry, yet wanting to remain honest and transparent. The result was not what I expected and I am grateful in so many ways for God’s mercy and kindness in touching all our hearts.
At the beginning of the service, I gently request that there be no sidebar conversations during service. I explain that this is to show courtesy and respect for where they are, why they are there and that the majority of men want to engage God and worship Him. God is the main reason we are there and He is to be respected. I also tell them they may hear something that not only can change their life, but can save their life. I do tell them after one warning it will be necessary to call a CO and have them removed if they fail to obey. We try to extend grace as much as possible so that they see we are different than the environment they are currently in.
On this particular evening, two men continued in a conversation after my opening request. I warned them twice, but to no avail. I went and got a CO to escort them out as is protocol. One of them became very angry, denied he was talking and then told me in somewhat unpleasant terms that he and his buddy were talking about the Word – God’s Word – and that I should have asked them what they were discussing before I had them removed. They missed the point that any conversation, regardless of topic is disruptive. Being trained not to engage in disputes, I did not reply as they were escorted out. I hated to do it, but it needed to be done.
About two minutes later I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see an inmate asking me if I could speak with him in the back of the room. I thought he may have wanted to discuss the removal of the two guys; however, there was a sense of urgency about him. I was blown away by our conversation. This man had led a very troubled life and told me he was struggling to believe in God. However, he felt that something was changing. I shared the Gospel with him and encouraged him to check out our church in Downingtown. He said I would see him on Sunday as he was scheduled for release the next day, which he felt was a miracle.
As I headed back to my seat I became very convicted (guilty) that I had just violated my own rules! Here I was, having a conversation during the message. I had some “splainin’ to do Lucy.” I’m grateful I can chuckle about it now. But it was very unsettling at the time.
The next week as I introduced the service I told the story to the men, many of course, had been there the previous week. I told them I was a hypocrite and could offer no good explanation or excuse. I reiterated the rule about talking and said I don’t know what to say about my conduct.
One of the men raised his hand and said, “You were doing what you came in here to do. Minister to us. It’s all good!” Wow!! Talk about mixed emotions. The main one was gratitude – to God for His grace in the moment, the reminder and encouragement of why we are there. This man truly appreciated our presence and I believe it is an awesome reminder that we do make a difference! It can be so discouraging at times when we have no idea what, if any, fruit we are producing and how often have we been told by a returning citizen that he will see us at our church on Sunday and we never see him again.
I am encouraged and at times tell the men, I hope I never see you in here again. I tell them it would be a huge blessing to see them on the outside plugged in to a good church and thriving, but mostly it is my prayer that more of these guys than I’ll ever realize on this side of Heaven will be standing next to me worshiping God for eternity!