Editor’s Note: The work of the Prison Ministries department has been greatly impacted as a result of COVID-19. Except for writing letters to the inmates, all other aspects of prison ministry have been put on hold. We sincerely hope that prison ministry volunteers will be able to quickly resume the important person-to-person work that takes place on behalf of the prisoners and their families. It is with this sentiment that we wish to share a glimpse into the role prison ministries serves in the lives of those behind bars and their loved ones living in our communities.
We have a wonderful example in the person of Jesus as a model for our work as prison ministries volunteers. Jesus said, “I was in prison and you came to Me”—Matthew 25:36, NKJV. Thank God we have members in the Atlantic Union who are being used as the hands and feet of Jesus to minister to inmates and their families.
These faithful, passionate church members volunteer weekly to serve inmates in local, state, and federal prisons to convey the love of Jesus in many ways. Some of those ministered to return to society as reformed and productive individuals; some of them have been baptized and are now church officers and religious workers.
There are different types of prison ministry volunteers; some can enter the prison and hold church meetings, and others serve as visitors or Bible counselors or life-skills coaches or give Bible studies. Usually, those who conduct church services are not allowed by the prison system to also be visitors and Bible counselors.
Not all prison ministries take place behind the prison walls. Another important part of volunteer work is to minister to the inmates’ partners and children. These volunteers might babysit prisoners’ children while the partner visits their inmate partner in prison. This is a vital ministry that enables partners to leave the children with a trustworthy person and be able to spend time with their partners without being distracted by the children.
Giving Bibles is a powerful way to minister to inmates. The Holy Spirit works on the hearts of those who read His Word and their lives are changed by His grace. Many have not had a Bible of their own.
A Bible is sometimes the only item they can have in their cells and is the only property they are allowed to take with them if they are moved to another facility. Many correctional facilities will only accept Bibles and other books that are sent to inmates directly from the bookstore or publishers and are still in a sealed wrapper. Some penal facilities will allow soft-cover Bibles to be given by volunteers at worship services.
A few months ago, one of our chaplains started asking the inmates who were attending the church service if they would like him to send Bibles to their children. Many were eager to share names and addresses. If the children live nearby, they are personally delivered. Later, one of the men told this chaplain, “When I call my children, they tell me they have read to page x and ask what page have I read to.” This shows that when we minister to families, we are also doing additional ministry to the inmates.
When inmates become returning or free citizens, many are homeless and leave the penal institution with only a few possessions they had when incarcerated. One of our volunteers in the Atlantic Union participates in a local church ministry that provides backpacks to female returning citizens through the facility’s inmate services department. Each backpack contains 30 or more items, which are valuable to people who have few or no possessions. The pack includes personal items for grooming and hygiene; winter clothing, such as a hat, gloves, and a scarf; a fleece blanket; and an umbrella and rain poncho. In addition, there are recreational items, treats, a bottle of water, spiritual literature, including Ellen G. White books, a small Bible, and a Bible-course enrollment card.
The same volunteer participates in another ministry which helps returning female and male citizens upon their release with articles of clothing, shoes, belts, hats, coats, and other items. Coordinated through the penal facility inmate services department, the volunteer helps stock their clothing closet with suitable items to fill the immediate and short-term needs. The volunteer receives the donated items, then launders and repairs them so they are ready for use. All items provided through the program are double-checked to ensure they are of good quality, next they are packaged by gender and item type for easy coordination and distribution by the facility for the impending need of the to-be-released inmates.
Children’s clothing and other donated items that are not useful to the prison population are shared with other ministries, such as the local church pantry and other ministries in the community. The prison ministry work is a labor of love, and this volunteer is passionate about doing this work of compassion for the Lord, since we are Jesus’ hands and feet.
The church services conducted in prisons often include all the elements of a regular church service—hymn singing, prayer, Scripture reading, Bible study, testimony time, special music, and preaching. Generally, inmates want and support this type of ministry because these services make them feel accepted and loved. They look forward to this type of interaction and therefore tend to protect the volunteers who come to the prison to serve in this expression of Jesus’ love.
Another type of worker is the pen pal, who writes to and receives letters from inmates. The best practice is for the letters, incoming and outgoing, to go to a postal box, where the pen pal coordinator receives and processes the mail, to keep both writers’ identity safe and secure.
In some areas of the Atlantic Union, when inmates are transferred to a permanent facility or sentenced, volunteers communicate with them by sending them quarterly Bible study guides, literature, yearly missionary books, yearly devotionals, and letters of encouragement.
During the holiday season, the volunteers minister to the inmates’ families by providing presents for the children. Some children receive toys while others are given gift cards to acquire items they want. This simple outreach has helped to fill the void left by the inmate’s absence at this important time.
The prison ministry work in the Atlantic Union territory is collaborative. For example, there is a group of committed volunteers from the Greater New York and Northeastern conferences who minister in the New York City correctional system, which includes several facilities on Rikers Island. Each week they conduct church services in various facilities. The group divides into smaller groups, which generally serve on alternate weeks, therefore, there is a weekly presence but different people present. This collaboration helps members to participate in the prison church services, while also having the opportunity to attend their local church services on some Sabbaths.
Each of the six conferences in the Atlantic Union Conference has a Prison Ministries director who is responsible for supervising prison ministries volunteers in their conference territory. However, we believe that the Atlantic Union territory is better served if we unite all our prison ministries work under one umbrella. The name of the combined effort is North East Prison Ministries. Because of the collaboration among conferences, the union can help promote, train, and motivate members who are interested in serving as prison ministries volunteers.
Periodically, the North East Prison Ministries team conducts one-day introductory training meetings where members are taught the rudiments of prison ministry work. Those who complete the training are awarded a certificate of completion. In addition to this training, each penal system will require that the volunteer take their orientation training course.
I can still remember my first time visiting to meet and encourage inmates, while attending the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Michigan. The feeling of hearing those iron gates close behind you is, at first, a little frightening, but when one realizes that one’s visit brings hope to the inmates, there is a desire to visit again. That first and subsequent visits to the prison in Michigan prepared me to visit the prisons while I pastored in my first church on Long Island, New York. I visited relatives of church members and even my own relatives who became incarcerated, to bring comfort and hope. Church members can be valuable in bringing hope and spiritual revival, renewal, and reformation to inmates by engaging in some of the voluntary ministries discussed above.
Thank God we have some amazing dedicated volunteers who felt called and are doing the work Jesus appointed. Some of our workers and trainers have served for decades and have been invaluable to the lives of those they serve, and they well represent the Seventh-day Adventist Church. No doubt their heavenly rewards are waiting because they have been faithful in their calling.
How can members be the hands and feet of Jesus to inmates and their families? Talk to your church Prison Ministries or Personal Ministries leader or contact the conference Prison Ministries or Personal Ministries director. They can assist you to receive training and orientation. If you don’t feel called to serve in prison ministry, you can pray for the volunteers, give funds, literature, and Bibles.
Members should not do prison ministries work by themselves, but in conjunction with a church or group of churches. The apostle Paul reminds us in Hebrews 13:3, NKJV: “Remember the prisoners as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—since you yourselves are in the body also.” Therefore, our voluntary work is a vital ministry. Let us work together for the glory of our Lord.