Prison Fellowship

Standing in the Breach

By Jim Liske | Posted May 16, 2013

Jim_Liske_2_200x300At a graduation ceremony for students completing Prison Fellowship’s four-year Prisoners to Pastors program, a tearful dad confessed to me, “I thought my son would never complete anything but a prison sentence!”

We were at South Bay Correctional Institution in Florida. Thirty-six students – who had completed hundreds of hours of rigorous theological study – were dressed up in gowns and tassels. They were like little kids in their excitement. Most of them had never walked in any kind of graduation ceremony in their lives, so this was a life-changing moment of hope and accomplishment! These graduates were being commissioned to change their prison and their communities for Jesus.

One of the graduating students is particularly close to my heart. His name is Derrick, and he’s got decades of prison time still to serve. But he doesn’t mind. He’s on fire. He sees that prison as his “Jerusalem,” the mission field where he can love people and spread the Gospel. Derrick’s adult daughter Christina was there to celebrate with him. She is a phenomenal, accomplished young woman. For many years, Angel Tree helped Derrick maintain his relationship with Christina when he couldn’t be with her physically.

At the graduation ceremony, Derrick and Christina weren’t allowed to hug each other, but the officers let me put an arm around each of them, so they could embrace each other through me. That’s exactly what you do when support Prison Fellowship and Angel Tree. You stand in the breach. God uses you to facilitate moments of connection, joy, and healing that would otherwise not exist.

What Pushes Your Passion Button?

By Garland Hunt | Posted May 10, 2013

photo-garlandWhat is passion? I think of it as an extreme, almost ungovernable emotion. Passion is when you feel so strongly about something, it’s difficult to keep it inside. When you feel passionate about something or someone, no one has to convince you to take action.

As Christians, it’s worth pausing to ask ourselves, what are we really passionate about? What makes us willing to sacrifice time, money, and talents? Our careers? Our families? Fulfilling our dreams? How well do our deepest passions reflect Christ’s passions?

Jesus was passionate about the cross. He didn’t look forward to it, but He was absolutely determined to go through it, because He knew it was necessary for the fulfillment of God’s plan.

When Jesus tells us to take up our crosses and follow Him, He is calling us to give our lives. He is calling us to be passionate about the things of His Kingdom.

From Scripture we know that Jesus was serious about “the least” among us – the prisoner, the sick, the alien – that He lists in Matthew 25.

What would our lives look like if we took Jesus’ passions as our own? One thing’s for sure: it would change us, and it would change the world. Young David was passionate about the honor of Israel and his God, and he slew the giant Goliath. Esther was passionate about saving the lives of her people, and she found the courage to risk her life and confront a king.

I challenge you today to take on Jesus’ passions. You won’t ever be the same, and you won’t ever regret it. Learn how we can help equip you today at prisonfellowship.org.

Women Discover Healing in God’s Word

By Alyson R. Quinn | Posted May 8, 2013
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The Prisoners to Pastors program at the California Institution for Women has helped to restore Gloria’s faith in her God-given potential.

One dark night in January, a cold drizzle enshrouds the California Institution for Women. But inside the education wing, one room overflows with light, life, and joy.

More than 20 prisoners at CIW are the first women to be part of Prison Fellowship’s Prisoners to Pastors program, a four-year, seminary-level program that will train them to become Christian leaders behind bars and back in their homes and communities.

As class begins, women of diverse races and ages enter a room awash in fluorescent light. Amid the smell of erasers and dictionaries, they laugh and chat as they take places in rows of pine desks.

After a time of prayer and worship, the class facilitators – Prison Fellowship staff member Deborah Postell and volunteers Nancy Gary and Shirley Houston – handed back the students’ most recent final exams. Together, the women achieved a cumulative GPA of 3.43 on the first unit they completed!

Gloria, a student whose two children live with relatives in another state, stands up to explain how God has used the Prisoners to Pastors program to restore her faith in her own potential.

“My parents always used to get bad reports from school. I would always get kicked out,” she explains with a rueful smile. “So now, to me, to have an A- on my final is …” She chokes up, unable to finish, while her sisters in Christ applaud and encourage her.

Not only is Gloria learning to master the program’s challenging curriculum, but she is also using her expanded knowledge of God’s Word to lead Bible studies for Spanish-speaking inmates on the prison yard. And along with Sylvia, a fellow student, she just helped translate the first Spanish-language edition of Inside Journal®, Prison Fellowship’s newspaper for prisoners.

“Amazing Grace” and Personal Prisons

By Steve Rempe | Posted May 6, 2013

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

The words are, no doubt, familiar to many of us who learned to sing the hymn “Amazing Grace” at a young age.  The tune might be even more familiar – you don’t have to be religious to recognize a song that seems omnipresent in movies or on TV; at private funerals or public memorial services.  We hear it played in grandeur on a stately pipe organ, or by solitary trumpet; by bagpipe, folksy guitar, or jazzy piano.  Each different rendition seems to bring out another facet of the song, or elicit a different emotion.

“Amazing Grace” has become a part of our collective conscience, yet too often we fail to stop and listen to the message contained in John Newton’s hymn.  And when we do listen, the lyrics often sound harsh and out-of-tune with the current culture of self-affirmation.  As a general rule, we prefer not to think of ourselves as “wretches” in need of saving.

There is at least one group in our culture, however, that relates intimately to the message in “Amazing Grace” – those behind bars.

In a 1990 documentary, Bill Moyers explores the impact of “Amazing Grace” on people from all walks of life, including prisoners.  The video includes an interview with singer Johnny Cash, who performed the song at his first prison concert at Huntsville State Prison in Texas in 1957.

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Finding Empathy

By Jim Liske | Posted May 3, 2013

Jim_Liske_2_200x300There’s a story of a German pilot in World War II. He was one “kill” short of earning the Iron Cross when he spotted an American B-17 bomber crew in trouble. They’d already taken heavy fire from Nazi guns, and they would have been easy prey.

But the German pilot remembered that a superior officer had told him, “When your enemy is no longer a threat to you, he ceases to be your enemy.” In those war-torn skies, the German pilot found a peculiar emotion: empathy. He didn’t pull the trigger. He nodded at the surprised Americans and escorted them until they reached safer skies over the North Sea.

It’s natural to feel sympathy for those who are like us, for the people who are on “our team.”

But Jesus calls us to a higher kind of love. His victory over sin and death means that no one can threaten us any longer. We no longer have to regard anyone as an enemy. Freed from the need to defend ourselves, let’s reach out to understand the very people we might feel tempted to dismiss. That doesn’t mean that we need to accept or explain away sin, but let’s see people for who they are – people Jesus came to save and to be with and to love.

Prisoners and their families are easy to dismiss as “other people” who deserve what they get. But without Jesus, we all deserve separation from our Father. As we look to His example, I pray we all find an emotion that’s too rare in our days: empathy.

Rating the Prisons Online

By Steve Rempe | Posted April 30, 2013

Most of us have done it.  When planning a vacation, or buying a car, or even before trying out a new restaurant in town, we first go online and check out consumer reviews.  Websites like tripadvisor.com, angieslist.com, and yelp.com can provide valuable, first-hand knowledge from others who already have experience with the places, things, or services we are considering for purchase.

A recent article in the Washington Post, however, reveals a new trend where individuals are reviewing places that nobody is actually wanting to attend – prisons.

Inmates, their attorneys, and their families have begun using the social media site yelp.com to draw attention to the conditions inside prisons across the country, including the quality of food, the professionalism of prison employees, or even allegations of abuse.

“I started reviewing because I needed something to kill time while I waited to see clients,” says Robert Miller, a private defense lawyer in Southern California who has reviewed three facilities online. “But I think the reviews are actually helpful for bail bondsmen, attorneys, family members — a lot of people, actually.”

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Separated

By Jim Liske | Posted April 26, 2013

A Seattle Times article recounts the story of 12-year-old Orlando, a boy whose father fled from the law and whose mother was committed to a mental hospital. Not yet a teenager, Orlando was left in charge of seven siblings, including a set of triplets still in diapers. He begged the milkman for bottles of fresh milk. He washed out the babies’ diapers with a garden hose, dried them out, and reused them. He did his best, but he was overwhelmed, and the babies were sick. A few weeks later, a neighbor called the police, and the children were split up among relatives and foster care.

Orlando lost track of the triplets, who were adopted and had their names changed. He spent the next several decades trying to track them down, a nearly superhuman feat he completed just before he died. In late 2011 Orlando’s story was shared with prisoners at Monroe Prison in Washington state. Prisoner after prisoner stood up to tell similar stories of separation and loss, along with hopes of one day being reunited and reconciled with those they loved.

When you support Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program, you help re-connect families – like Orlando’s – torn apart by incarceration. But all ministry to prisoners helps save families from the vicious circle of estrangement. When prisoners’ hearts are reformed, they return to society and don’t commit more crimes and create more victims. They don’t abandon their loved ones. Families stay together. Children have a future.

When you invest your time, prayer, and financial gifts in ministry to prisoners and their families, you’re not just helping write stories of redemption – you’re also helping to make sure that tragic situations like Orlando’s never happen in the first place. Learn what a difference you can make today at www.prisonfellowship.org.

Face-to-Face in the Broom Closet

By Jim Liske | Posted April 25, 2013

At the warden’s insistence we met with Vince, a prisoner facing a life sentence for murder, in a broom closet. We sat knee to knee and face to face.

At Kauai Community Corrections Center in Hawaii, Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers had been worshipping and studying God’s Word with the inmates. The service was in an outside area under a pavilion, and we gathered with 75 men and women. As always, worship was great, prayer was fiery, and the inmates drank in the Word. The scenery was beautiful, even at the prison, and the fellowship was awesome.

After the service we went to meet with Vince.

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The Innocent Victims of Crime

By Katherine Craddock | Posted April 24, 2013

Amani_JoDejaJan_225x300Drugs. Alcohol. Incarceration. The cycle of crime swirled around little Jo’Deja and Amani, but they were innocently unaware, shielded from the upheaval of their parents’ choices in the home of their grandmother.  “I didn’t do anything around them,” their mom, Darlene explains. “But I was living a double life.”

Three years ago, at the end of her rope, Darlene rediscovered the faith of her childhood, and things began to change. “I have always been a religious person,” she explains.  “I always knew that God had a purpose for me and was not going to give up on me. Prayer, the Christian witness of the girls’ incarcerated step-dad, and the help of my church got me off  the drugs and helped me become more of a mom to my children.”

With a sober, Christ-centered mom back in the picture, the two girls began to thrive. But making positive choices away from the easy money of the drug culture had led their little family into some dire financial circumstances.

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The Saints of Angola

By Steve Rempe | Posted April 22, 2013
Photo courtesy Angola Prison / Wikipedia Commons

Photo courtesy Angola Prison / Wikipedia Commons

A controversial new plan to prepare inmates for reentry into society is being proposed in Louisiana.  The idea is to move a thousand prisoners from a minimum-security prison in the state and transfer them to Angola Prison, a maximum-security prison once infamous for violence and decrepit conditions.  There, the minimum-security prisoners would receive mentoring from their Angola counterparts.  Four “mentees” would be assigned to a mentor, and would spend all waking hours together – attending vocational training, eating meals, and taking part in evening worship and Bible study.  Upon completion, the prisoners from the minimum-security prison would be released.

As Professor John Rottman of Calvin Theological Seminary describes it, “The goal of these programs is moral rehabilitation, and the instrument of rehabilitation is the Gospel of Jesus.”

It doesn’t sound like a typical prison program.  But Angola isn’t your typical maximum-security prison, and Burl Cain is not your standard prison warden.

Prior to his taking the position as warden in 1995, Angola had the reputation of being “the bloodiest prison in America.”  The American Bar Association had referred to conditions in the prison as “medieval, squalid, and horrifying.”  One report on Angola estimated that 25 percent of the prison population was in some sort of coercive sexual relationship.

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