Three years ago our couples’ Friday night Bible study tossed around missions ideas we might do together. From the comfort of our college-educated, suburban lives we made logical suggestions—the homeless shelter, tutoring, a food pantry or Habitat for Humanity—but we rejected them all. As our minds searched for new ideas, someone said, “What about prison?”
No one said “no.” In fact no one said anything. We sat stunned and silent. Seconds clicked by and God stepped in. We agreed in unison, “Yes! Prison ministry.”
Moments later I wondered, “What have we done?”
None of us brought a single qualification to prison ministry yet we pursued the idea anyway. Through several “coincidences” God led us to a local prison ministry that ran a weekly worship service. To our surprise its leaders welcomed us, and within a couple months we made our first visit to a maximum security men’s prison.
We weaved our way down the institutional hallways, deeper into the prison, to the chapel.
The service was nothing like I expected or had ever experienced. The inmates who attended were friendly and polite, not scary or threatening. And the service was loud, joyful, spirit-filled and uplifting. Today the prison chapel is my favorite place to worship.
Yet I still struggle to find my place in the ministry. The little voice inside reminds me I don’t belong. First of all I’m a woman—a bit out of place in a men’s prison. My life story doesn’t resemble the harsh realities the men have faced, so I can’t relate to their specific struggles. Plus, I don’t lead worship or sing or play an instrument.
My sensible side adds up the facts and says, “leave.”
But God says, “stay.”
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (1 Corinthians 12:9, NIV)
And in the staying He has blessed me far more than I’ve blessed those I set out to serve. God has given me courage to confront my fear of public speaking to share openly and honestly with the men. He’s opened the inmates’ hearts to accept me and our group. Through these men God has shown me what a life transformed by the gospel looks like. And He has shown me in startling detail what Jesus’ offer of grace really looks like.
Through my “yes” I realize that I’m the one being ministered to and being transformed. The others from our core group say the same thing. And as a result of our faithful service, our church is being transformed as well.
Many from our congregation have come to the weekly prison services, including our pastor and worship leaders. They all leave overwhelmed, amazed . . . and different. In reality, the inmates are teaching our church how to worship more freely and passionately. They’re showing us what utter brokenness looks like when put in the hands of Jesus. And they are teaching us to love those we thought were unlovable.
God ignited a fire in our church for the prisoners and now our church is an integral partner with the ministry. All because one night, three years ago we said, “yes” to a crazy idea. A crazy idea, but a God idea.
Our Savior is clearly at work, guiding the prison ministry to a greater calling. In the process he has woven a mish-mash team of the most unlikely partners—ex-cons and soccer moms, addicts and accountants, street-savvies and suburbanites—into a beautiful fellowship. Held together by the crimson thread of Jesus’s blood.
When I go into the prison, I go with one qualification—I’m a sinner saved by grace. I offer my “yes” and I have faith God will do the rest.