Marlys used to avoid driving near the local prison. Now it's her favorite place to go.
There was a time when I never even wanted to drive through Anamosa, Iowa—to be that close to the big penitentiary. But now, that prison is my favorite place to go.
A few years ago, I attended an Alpha conference, where believers gather for fellowship and faith discussions. There, I learned about a church that was doing prison ministry. And it just stuck with me. I couldn't get the thought out of my head.
When I got home, I mentioned it to someone who said the associate warden from Anamosa Penitentiary attended their church. We started talking about bringing Alpha to that facility, and that's where I got my start in prison ministry.
The first time you hear the click of the prison door behind you, you think, "Oh, wow. This is real." But since it was a group of us, I probably felt a lot better than I would have if I had visited alone.
Then, we met the incarcerated men we had come to serve. They seemed timid at first like they didn’t know if they could trust us. We did different Bible studies and worship, and then we broke into small groups for discussion. Those conversations made me realize, "Oh, they're real people. They have families like I do. They've made mistakes and deserve a second chance."
As a prison volunteer, I went in thinking, "Oh, we're going to bring Jesus to these men in the prison." And it only took one day for me to realize that Jesus is alive and well in this prison. We're not bringing Him. He already went ahead of us. We're going there to experience what He is doing.
When the pandemic hit, prisons had to close to visitors and volunteers. So, our prison volunteer group decided to make the most of our time. We sent encouraging messages to the guys in prison. Also, we started to do a lot more studies, like Prison Fellowship's Outrageous Justice® small-group study.
Outrageous Justice explains some of the complexities of the criminal justice system and shares how followers of Jesus can take action to promote peace and restoration. It was so eye-opening just to hear how many people we have incarcerated in the United States and to read about the discrepancies with incarceration and sentencing. And I realized how many children have a parent in prison—that can affect a child for the rest of their life. It's important to address these challenges.
When I learned more about justice issues, I grew more interested and applied to be a Justice Ambassador at Prison Fellowship®. So, I've had the opportunity to speak up for causes in my state. One of the highlights, for me, was being a part of a group that called Sen. Chuck Grassley and actually got to talk to him, not just to his staff. We brought up the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentencing. And he took the time to listen to us.
REAL 'GOD MOMENTS' IN MINISTRY AND ADVOCACY
In addition, I get to build awareness and serve in reentry ministry at my church and in the community. It can be so challenging and yet rewarding. I remember a couple of people with a history of incarceration who ended up becoming a part of our church for the long term. But a lot of returning citizens have struggled, too. When you watch someone struggle and go back to prison, you have to realize that maybe they've been in this pattern their whole lives. It might take a lot of time and support to break it.
There's one guy in the reentry program in our community who said he had returned to prison four times. Finally, he decided he needed more help coming out of prison. By being a part of this group and having mentors walk beside him, he finally made it. He began working at that facility helping others and then moved on to another job. He's married and getting his driver's license.
In prison and out, ministering and advocating are so rewarding. For me, it's so powerful to see people receive a second chance and become healthy for their kids. So, you're not just helping that individual; you're hopefully helping their family. That strikes a chord with me—I'm a mom of three adult kids and a grandmother of three children. Volunteering to serve incarcerated men and women and advocating with elected officials is such meaningful service. And it's work that Scripture clearly calls us to. I'm amazed how it opens your eyes to things that matter. It gives you real "God moments."
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