The week of April 10-16 has been declared National Volunteer Week—a time to honor and appreciate men and women who are making a difference in the lives of others. Prison Fellowship is greatly appreciative of all those who offer their time and efforts on behalf of prisoners and their families, whether they are mentoring and training prisoners, providing support to children and family members of those behind bars, or offering prayer and encouragement to those affected by crime and incarceration. And, as the following story describes, the blessings of volunteering are often as much for those who offer their time as for those who being served. To learn more about volunteer opportunities with Prison Fellowship, and how you can be a part of God’s work in the lives of others, click here.
When I visit young men in state prisons, I do not typically expect to be ministered to—or to be inspired. My hope is generally to uplift and inspire them—and perhaps touch the heart of a defeated soul enough to convince them God still has a plan for their lives. But more often than you might expect, God doesn’t just use me to speak his message of mercy and love to them—He also speaks through them—and teaches me.
One of those precious moments occurred the other day with a young man I could never have imagined learning a thing from. When I first met him, I could tell he had serious emotional problems, and it soon became clear why: no family, no outside contacts, a history of serious abuse, incarcerated as a young teen—and he’d also been raped in prison several times.
Because there was no one in his life at all, I wrote to him after that first visit, and the letter he sent back was a long, depressing message filled with despair. He told me how hopeless he was, that there was no one in his life, and that he no longer believed in God. And then at the end of the letter, after I’d skimmed through two pages of his bleak, defeated thoughts, he wrote this:
“Miss Cindy, Can you please teach me how to have faith in God?”
I was deeply moved. A glimmer of hope—he was searching. But I never would have expected that a year later, God would use him to minister to me.
Just as I was getting up to leave after our visit, I marveled over the change in him, and thanked God that He had used me to bring a little sunshine into this prisoner’s life. Over the past few months, his faith had grown by leaps and bounds and it showed in his letters and the smiles on his face.
And then he said something that stunned me.
“Miss Cindy, I need to tell you something.”
I sat down again. The look on his face told me what he was about to say was important to him. “What is it?”
“Miss Cindy, I feel so blessed now. If it had to take 20 years in prison for me to find God and realize there is true love and kindness in this world, then I am happy I spent 20 years in prison.”
I had no idea how to respond. I brushed away tears and thought about how scarce love and kindness had to have been in his life for him to feel that 20 years in prison was worth the few morsels I had thrown him. And then I thought about how deep his love for God had grown. Would I have been willing to spend 20 years in prison to find God?
That was the day I realized I am being ministered to as much as I am ministering. This young man is a state prisoner and he was involved in a serious crime. But on that day, God made him my teacher.
Cindy Sanford is the author of Letters to a Lifer: The Boy ‘Never to be Released.’ Visit her website at letters2alifer.blogspot.com.