Volunteers Reflect on Decades of Prison Ministry
With more than 35 years of prison volunteering under their belts, Dave and Judy McElyea are currently volunteer coordinators at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater. They have served as teachers, mentors, mentor trainers, small group leaders, and reentry volunteers. Prison Fellowship® spoke with Dave and Judy about the challenges and rewards of volunteering over the decades and why they're still willing to serve.
Prison Fellowship: How did you first get into prison ministry, and how long have you worked with Prison Fellowship?
DAVE: We both read Chuck Colson's book Born Again. We worked with Charis [prison ministry] and later with Kairos [prison ministry] of Minnesota in the federal system (Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution) for 19 years prior to volunteering with Prison Fellowship.
We met a woman in 2001 who invited us to become substitute Bible study leaders at Minnesota Correctional Facility–Lino Lakes (men's prison). This was right about when InnerChange Freedom Initiative [now Prison Fellowship Academy®] was being started in Minnesota. [Prison Fellowship executives] Dan Kingery and John Byrne invited us to lead the first candidates for [the Academy] through a Bible study. They then invited us to be a part of the first-ever [Academy] class at Lino Lakes.
Has your volunteer experience impressed upon you the need to follow God's calling to "remember the prisoner"?
DAVE: Yes, it makes me remember that we need to bring the message of salvation to them. No matter the crime, they can have their sins forgiven. They can, by turning to Christ, have a better life. It has made me look at both sides of an issue; [there's] less black and white, and a lot more gray. I've become a more compassionate person.
My experience has made me dig deeper into Scripture and other materials to answer questions and to take a deeper look at my personal walk.
JUDY: I try to be less judgmental, more compassionate. I think serving in prison has brought us closer as a couple.
We have a commitment from Christ to reach out to the unlovely as much as the lovely. I learned I cannot pick and choose where the message is delivered. … I have studied [the Bible] more than I ever thought I could or would study! The men inside have so much time to read the Bible. I have to be conscientious about knowing the Jesus I follow.
Have you ever worked with the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree® program?
DAVE: Yes, we've contributed money through the website, and we served a family of three in rural Minnesota. We mailed the gifts because of the distance involved. It was very rewarding being able to do something for someone else's Christmas.
The mother was very appreciative of the gifts, as was the grandfather. We included a specific note for each child with their gifts.
JUDY: There was also an impact on an [unrelated] inmate. I was talking about the fun of shopping for our three Angel Tree children. He had been under the impression Prison Fellowship pulled from a fund to buy the gifts, and all volunteers were refunded money spent. He said his kids had been recipients and [that] when he got out, he was going to make sure he did his share for Angel Tree. He was impressed that the volunteers do this because they enjoy it!
One in three Americans has a criminal record—how have you or a loved one been personally affected by crime/incarceration?
DAVE: I spent 31 years in law enforcement, between military police and the University of Minnesota police. I felt the system was not working, so I wanted to see firsthand what Christian faith could do.
JUDY:In my early 20s, I was the victim of date rape. Years of work and faith have helped me to grow and put forgiveness on my attacker and peace within. I was reluctant to ever work in a facility with sexual offenders. Over time, learning that I was working with many in Lino Lakes, I felt God telling me to share my experience with the men. Dave and I prayed and asked others to pray. Sharing my story and the story of God's forgiveness with men incarcerated for similar crimes was the last leg on my journey to healing.
What keeps you volunteering all these years?
DAVE: The fact that we see progress and have seen men and women who have made change in their lives. It gives me a chance to show the men and women that people do care about them, that we want to show them Christ's salvation and help them become better citizens on the outside.
JUDY: Dave and I have seen that faith helps where punishment does not. In so many ways, the system without Christ doesn't meet the need.
What's your favorite story of something you experienced as a volunteer?
JUDY: It has been fun having so many "sons." Many of them call me Mom or Grandma. Once while getting ready to go to prison, our then-4-year-old granddaughter asked where we were going. I told her we were going into prison to teach the men there about Jesus so they would learn not to commit crimes. She replied, "Tell them I know just how they feel; I've been spending a lot of time in my room lately!" The men love that story.
WANT TO VOLUNTEER WITH PRISON FELLOWSHIP?
If you have a passion for sharing the Gospel and serving others, we invite you to consider taking the love and truth of Jesus Christ to those impacted by crime and incarceration. Whether your interests lie in prison ministry, advocacy, or family reconciliation, Prison Fellowship will partner with you towards making a difference in the lives of prisoners, their families, and their communities.
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