Wow! As I think back, it was almost 35 years ago, as a young pastor, that I received a strange request from a young man in our congregation – “Pastor, I would like to go back to Chester County Prison.” I don’t remember my initial reaction, but really!– here was someone who wanted to go back to prison! That request has a story behind it, for which we thank God. It is a story which continues to impact men and women who find themselves incarcerated at our county prison in West Chester.
It was in 1978 that Doug Burnette made known to me his desire to “go back to prison” so he could help other men, as he was helped, when he had a life-changing experience with the Lord. At that time, Doug, his wife, Pat, and their children were attending Mt. Vernon Mennonite Church, for which I am so grateful. The Lord has taught me much through Doug’s life and ministry. I regard Doug as one of my heroes of faith.
To give a little more background, Doug was born in West Virginia and lived through some tough times there. He had no “real home” and grew up around a lot of alcohol and anger — a lethal combination. At age 15, Doug ran away. That is when he came to a farm near Oxford, PA. It was in Oxford that Doug met Pat, got married, and together became the parents of five children. Although Doug had changed his residency location to PA, the alcohol and anger followed him.
Doug wishes life had been different back then, but in 1966, Doug committed a crime which put him in Chester County Prison. Doug thought his crime would “put him away” for the rest of his life, but God, in great His mercy, did a life-change in Doug. He began attending the chapel services in the prison, listening intently to the pastors. He went to the Tuesday and Saturday services, comparing what the pastors had to say. Doug said, “Thank God, they both agreed, offering a chance at a new life.” It was Pastor H. A. Wheatley who challenged Doug one day with these words, “You don’t have to live like this. You can have a new life in Christ.” Doug thought, “What do I have to lose?” So, while an inmate at Chester County Prison, Doug asked Jesus for a life-change, and it was dramatic. That night for the first time, he said he “slept like a baby” — the nightmares and turmoil of his life melted away.Doug would say there has been a lot of growing since then with ups and downs, steps forward and backward, but his conversion was the beginning of a changed life that became a life-ministry to helping others, as he had been helped.
Doug served 4 years in prison for the crime he committed. While in Rockville Prison, he was deeply appreciative of the spiritual fellowship and help from the “Order of Onesimus,” a Yokefellows Prison Ministry. With a foundation of what Doug describes as “living on a higher plane” with Christ, Doug came back home to his family and became active in the Mt. Vernon church family. It was then that Doug asked for the opportunity to “go back to prison” to help others in the same way he had been helped. In the fall of 1978, Mt. Vernon Mennonite Church began the Onesimus Ministries with Doug serving as an in-prison assistant to the chaplain. Permission was granted, from the prison, for Doug to go back to CCP one day a week – back to the very institution where he met Jesus – to offer the same life-changing opportunity to others. Doug served as the first chaplain of Onesimus Ministries for 11 years.
Onesimus has been faithfully offering the life-changing good news of the Gospel for the past 35 years. We thank God for His faithfulness in providing funding for 1.5 staff members who are ministering to both men and women there at the prison. You might wonder about the meaning of the word “Onesimus.” It comes from the Bible in the New Testament Book of Philemon. The Apostle Paul writes to his friend, Philemon, concerning a young man he met “while in chains”—in v. 10-16 Paul makes a word play on the meaning of his name — Onesimus means “useful.”
I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.
Another wonderful development is happening this year — information about Onesimus Ministries is going to be available on the internet, with our own website. One of our board members, Rick Chiavetta, is designing our website. Please visit our website at www.onesimusministries.org. Thank you, Rick, for being our “web-servant,” as you call yourself.