Prison can be a dark place, full of corrosive influences. Prisoners who want to follow Christ must fight against a tide that threatens to push them back into old behaviors and thought patterns. Other men and women might be curious about Jesus, but, cynical about the value of “religion,” they balk at the idea of attending a chapel service. A third group—including prisoners in lock-down or solitary confinement—may simply have no access to chapel services or Bible studies. Prison Fellowship created Inside Journal more than 25 years ago to speak to all three groups, meeting them at their point of need through uplifting content that clearly communicates the Gospel.
In August, Prison Fellowship circulated 155,000 copies of Inside Journal to more than 700 state, federal, county, and community corrections facilities in all 50 states. Like each edition, the issue released in summer 2016 contained a relevant, fresh presentation of the Gospel, alongside articles exploring how the truth of God’s Word applies to all of life behind bars.
Here is this summer’s presentation of the Gospel:
Don’t Do Your Time Alone
In April 2016, Sgt. Joseph Serna faced a night behind bars. But the retired Special Forces Green Beret was not a stranger to dark places. Over the course of three tours in Afghanistan, Serna survived several traumatic experiences that could have easily claimed his life. He withstood the dangers of a roadside bomb and a suicide bomber. He survived another close call in an overturned truck, which landed upside down in a canal.
Only Sgt. Serna would make it out of the vehicle alive.
While these incidents earned Serna military decorations, they also left him with his fair share of emotional baggage. Like many of his fellow soldiers, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and a sense of isolation and loneliness.
To cope with the pain, he turned to alcohol. His situation reached a critical point in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when he was arrested and charged for driving under the influence.
Part of Serna’s sentence required that he report to Judge Lou Olivera at the Veterans Treatment Court every two weeks. One time, Serna lied about a recent urine test. He later admitted this, and the judge sentenced Serna to one night behind bars.
After his wartime experiences, Serna already feared being in tight spaces. A night alone in prison sounded like more than the veteran could bear. Olivera could tell that Serna was anxious. He later remembered, “When Joe first came to turn himself in, he was trembling.”
Joe Serna knew it would be a long night.
Many of us have experienced a “dark night of the soul.” That is the kind of night that Serna faced in that North Carolina jail. He had no way out of the cell. He was tired of dealing with PTSD. It was one more nightmare he just wished he could wake up from. The worst part is that he was facing it all alone.
The Bible tells of Jesus’ own experience with loneliness. Jesus, who lived a faultless life, entered into our darkness in order to bring His light. He showed God’s love, healed the sick, and taught those who would listen. Eventually, Jesus would be accused by people who refused to believe in His message. He then faced the darkest time in His life: abandonment, isolation, torture, and ultimately, death on a cross. Knowing what was to come, Jesus spent time alone in a garden and prayed. He was honest about the pain and anxiety. Still, He asked that God’s will would be done, even in a night as dark as this one.
As Serna sat alone in his cell, the silence was broken moments later by an unexpected visitor: Judge Lou Olivera. To Serna’s surprise, the judge entered the cell. The door closed behind him. “I got chills when he walked in,” the retired sergeant told The Fayetteville Observer.
Serna did not move. Olivera took a seat beside him. It was the only bunk in the cell, and naturally, Serna was confused. He remembered what Olivera had said earlier as they drove to the prison together: “We’re going to turn ourselves in.”
Surely the judge could not have been serious. “You are here with me for the night?” Serna asked incredulously.
The judge replied, “Yeah, that’s what I’m doing.”
From then on, Serna was not the only man in the cell. He was not the only veteran, either. Olivera had served in the Gulf War and endured his fair share of war’s horrors. He feared that a night alone would trigger Serna’s PTSD. The battlefield is difficult for any soldier to leave behind completely.
Between bites of meatloaf, he and Serna shared their stories. They found common ground in their experiences as U.S. soldiers. Olivera even gave Serna the single bunk in the cell; the judge slept on a mattress on the floor. Literally overnight, their relationship transformed into something Serna had never imagined. All it took was having someone there—someone who saw him, not for what he did, but for who he was.
“It was more of a father-son conversation … It was personal,” Serna told The Washington Times. With one act of humility and compassion, a dark and lonely cell became much brighter.
Jesus Christ showed even greater humility and compassion when He gave up his life. That sacrifice has paid the debt we owe for our mistakes—a debt we could never satisfy. Now, those who accept Christ’s gift of grace can join a new community: fellowship with God. All are invited to have a relationship with God, to be called His sons and daughters, and to experience new life with Him always at our side. Nobody has to do time alone.