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As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, God has gifted each of us by His Holy Spirit, and has shaped us for ministry to others in unique ways. We all have different passions, experiences, and abilities that God can use to bless others. Over the next few weeks, I am going to be running guest posts from NewLife members who are involved in ministries and fellowship opportunities outside of our church. If you would like to share about how God is using you in ministry outside the walls of our church, please let me know. Today’s guest writer is Gordon Lawrence.
“Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'” (Matthew 25:37-40)
Jesus encouraged his followers to visit those in prison. Jesus said in Matt 5:36 when talking about the coming of the Son of Man and the separation of the sheep and the goats, ‘I was in prison and you came to visit me’; and in Hebrews 13:3 it says ‘remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison.’ Visiting those in prison is therefore something that the church should be involved in.
The current prison population in Connecticut is just under 14,000 men and women, down from almost 20,000 when I started volunteering. I have been volunteering in prison for over 15 years, initially with an ALPHA program and more recently mentoring men who will be released within six to twelve months; usually on a one-on-one basis. The surprise for me when I first went into prison was that God was already working there. There were groups of men who loved the Lord; I was not ‘taking Jesus’ into prison. I have come to realize that in prison ministry, the first reason why we are there is not to convert people, or to make sure they do not reoffend and return to prison, but to show them that they are not forgotten and that somebody cares enough to visit and in doing so show the love of Jesus.
I am currently involved in a program at Radgowski Correctional Institute, Uncasville, where I work directly under the chaplain. I believe this is the only prison where there is a program like this, and to date the chaplain has been unable to persuade others to introduce a similar program in other facilities.
For those interested in volunteering in prison, I see the need for someone who is energetic, persistent, and willing to search for opportunities. It can take a long time to get into any program, whether a bible study or other program. I can provide background and information, but the need is for someone to make contact with chaplains and find out from them how you might be able to help. There are other programs that may need volunteers. I know of one man who studies poetry with inmates, and some of those who attend then come to the Christian program in which he also volunteers. I have often wondered how one might get involved in Hartford Correctional Center, but as that is mostly a transition facility and level 4, it is not easy to be allowed into.
The other two areas that may present opportunities are halfway houses or other transition living facilities. A much larger commitment would be to put together a group that assists people returning from prison and takes referrals from the prison, most likely from the chaplain. Post-incarceration programs are very challenging, time demanding, and requiring of much wisdom. I have had a little experience with some of the men that I have mentored in prison and been able to keep contact with on the outside. The mentoring program has been the only program that permits a volunteer to work with people both in and out of prison (DOC rules).
Prison is only one stage affecting the lives of inmates. Of the many people I have met in prison, all who I am aware of have found life outside very challenging. Whenever possible, I have tried to put them in touch with programs or pastors on the outside who could assist. I meet one man regularly who has been out for over two years, but who still finds his life is controlled by his probation officer. I am aware of one mentee who went to Haiti doing some sort of pastoral work, and another who is involved with mentoring men leaving prison. There are restrictions placed by the Department of Corrections on any person volunteering in prison having any contacts with former inmates who are still on parole or probation.
There are opportunities, and there is the need for patience and persistence to find what can be done, but we need to remember that Jesus encouraged his followers to visit those in prison.
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