For over thirty years, as part of a two man team, I have been locked inside a jail to conduct one or two Gideon led Sunday afternoon worship services. My turn comes every six to eight weeks. At the beginning I mistakenly thought my purpose in going was to be a blessing to someone. Perhaps sometimes that is so. More often my life has been the one immeasurably blessed, seeing God at work in hearts made tender.
The first time I entered the heavily barred building other individuals and groups were there, waiting for the chaplain’s instructions. I met an elderly man cradling a well worn Bible in his hands, who said he came each Sunday to pray and minister to prisoners.
Eight weeks later when I returned, he greeted me, smiling.
“How did you remember my name?” I asked. I was flabbergasted.
“When I meet you Gideons, I write your name in my Bible. I pray for you every day.”
I have never forgotten Mr. Olds’ name since that day.
Many inmates have also left lasting impressions. Some prisoners are incorrigible, but many are not. Many are good individuals experiencing the consequence of thoughtless decisions.
One middle-aged lady, attractively dressed, with stylish hair, polished nails and white sandals didn’t look like an ordinary prisoner. I had planned to speak on David’s prayer in Psalms 51, where David asked God to create in him a clean heart. Before I announced my text she asked if she could sing a song she had composed. With a beautiful professional voice she sang a song based on that passage. Let me tell you, I had goose bumps.
“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing in here” she said. “About six months ago my husband and son were killed in an automobile accident. Several weeks later friends invited me to their house and I drank beer for the first time. On my way home I got a DWI. Now I have to spend my weekends in here until my sentence is finished.” She had previously participated in a prison outreach ministry in New Mexico.
Two young men left lasting impressions. One said he hitchhiked from Michigan to Texas to turn himself in. “Because,” he said, “my grandfather was praying for me. I want to serve my sentence and start living in a way to please my grandfather and his God.”
One New Year’s Day, when I announced a passage in John, a college student said, “Just a minute.” He returned with a yellow tablet and flipped through the pages until he found his notes. “I’ve been studying that – go ahead.”
He was from an affluent family and had come home for the holidays. On Christmas morning in church, he told his mother he was going to turn himself in. She told him not to, that they would fix it. He refused saying, “No, let me stay in there until I get my head screwed on straight.” He was well on the way to doing that.
I’ve met pastors, accountants, business men and folks from all walks of life behind the bars. One jailer told me, “I never thought I’d ever see that: a banker talking to a bank robber.” He was a repentant bank robber.
Many admit that being incarcerated was the best thing that ever happened to them. It gave them time to read the Bible, to reflect, to let God deal with their heart. Some, since their release, have found places of service in various churches and denominations.
The happiest Christian I have ever known, I met in jail. He “…changed his rags of sadness for threads of gladness,” his words. A year after his release the chaplain learned this former inmate and his brother were active in radio evangelism.
The Impala is a little African animal that stands about knee high. It can jump ten feet high and thirty feet distance. But, it can be kept securely in a four feet tall board pen. It won’t jump out if it can’t see where it will land. In other words, it doesn’t have faith.
I tell inmates that if they are hesitant to follow Christ because they don’t know what he will ask of them, they will be like that little Impala. Joy only comes when we surrender our all to Him.
The tears that often flow in jail services are evidence of our great God at work.
Every person you meet, God loves: on both sides of the bars.
The opinions expressed by authors may not necessarily reflect the opinion of FaithWriters.com.
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