Prison ministry: I know I’ve broken all ten commandments

Chainlink Fence

As Philip* walks down the corridor lit by harsh fluorescent lights, he quickly prays to prepare himself for what lies ahead. The prison guards are expressionless as they check him and his belongings. Satisfied that he is clean, they open the heavy gate and let him through.

Another guard leads the way. Philip knows his way around the prison but understands this is protocol. In this higher security facility, Philip is not allowed to bring in any books, papers or visual aids. All he has is what’s in his head and the set of DVDs he is carrying with him.

He is ushered into a spartan room with tables and chairs. At the front is a TV set and DVD player which he quickly sets up. Before too long, a door on the far end of the room opens, and inmates shuffle into the room. Philip looks up and smiles broadly at them. They smile back.

“Hello again,” he greets them. “Shall we continue with our study?”

Prison ministry is hard work. Philip faces men of every kind, men who have committed every conceivable crime—and others which are inconceivable. These are men who have made a string of poor choices and have seen the worst of life. For many, they’ve hit rock bottom and they don’t have any expectation of anything better. For them, this is the end. There is no hope. But, Philip wants to tell them of the hope that God is offering to everyone.

Philip conducts Worldview Rethink courses in all kinds of prisons—from medium to maximum security correctional facilities. In medium security prisons, he is able to hand out the interactive edition of The Stranger on the Road to Emmaus as well as use the workbook. In situations where security is stricter, not only is he is barred from handing out books but he isn’t allowed to take in any visual aids. Prison authorities mention how even simple staples can be twisted into sharp points which, when stuck into the eraser ends of pencils, become transformed into weapons. In such tight security settings, Philip relies on the use of The Stranger videobook or teaches from memory.

“This study is beautiful,” he says, referring to the Worldview Rethink curriculum. He tells the men in the study, “I’m not here to argue with you. I just just want to tell you what the Bible says. I’m just sharing.” Because the study itself strives to be objective, it disarms the men. They come to class and sit easily in their chairs, listening. They don’t argue because they’re learning.

“It’s a lot of trial and error to find out what works in prison ministries,” explains Philip. “The videobook is my greatest asset. The on-location video clips have a real impact as the men realize that the stories in the Bible happened in real time, in real places.”

If the prison authorities give permission, and with the blessing of the prison chaplains, Philip will hand out copies of the interactive edition and workbooks to the men. Often, chaplains will assist by being his co-teacher. One chaplain he knows well, enjoys covering the workbook sections with the class after each video segment. The chaplain goes through it question by question, checking to see if the men are tracking along.

When he can, Philip also brings in the visual aids. The tabernacle model is very helpful. And the rubber rat is one of the best visual aids. “It’s been one of the most powerful representations of sin,” Philip notes. “It’s driven home how God views sin.”

The study brings out many questions that the men often wonder about and Philip is glad for the opportunity to answer them.

Once, a prisoner remarked, “Just because of my parents’ sin, I sin?”

Philip explained, “You’re responsible for your sin but you inherited a sin nature.”

On another occasion, a prisoner asked, “I thought God was a loving God.”

Philip nodded in agreement. “Yes he is, but you need to understand that God is also just. We’ll be finding out later what God does for mankind to resolve this dilemma.”

It’s this hope of seeing how God will help them that keeps the men coming back to the study each week. Because many of the men only have a 45 minute attention span, Philip finds that reviews are necessary.

One part of the curriculum that makes the men sit up is the section on the Law. They’ve faced the law in their country and are suffering the consequences of failing to keep the law. So, they are intensely interested in learning how God deals with the Israelites when they fail to keep the law he has given them. At this point in the narrative, the story seems quite hopeless but Philip reminds them good news is coming.

The approach that the curriculum takes has been valuable in helping explain the gospel. There’s no arm-twisting, no feel of proselytizing. Philip says, “It simply presents the truth. I tell the class, ‘I believe every word in the Bible, but now you have the chance to know what it says and decide for yourselves whether or not you believe it.’”

Philip prepares for the studies using the leader’s guide. Sometimes he feels like he’s “cheating” because of all the built-in helps that make it easy for him. However, he doesn’t bring the guide to the studies because he wants to model for the men how they can simply use their books to guide a friend through the gospel message.

In some of his studies, the class starts small. But word soon spreads that it’s an interesting learning experience and then it grows and grows. Some classes have 50 attendees. The largest number he has taught was 90 men! Word even gets around to other correctional facilities and Philip now finds himself doing as many as five studies a week in different prisons.

The most moving moments are at the end of the study when men come up to him and tell him how the course has changed their lives. They’ve come not only to understand the gospel message, but also to the point of trusting Jesus for eternal life. For Philip, seeing the Lord bring these men to salvation is why he keeps doing the studies. These are men whose lives are in abeyance but, after understanding the gospel, they now have a hope that will sustain them for the rest of their lives. Whenever he’s on the road, shuttling from prison to prison, he encourages himself by bringing to mind some of the testimonies he’s received. One inmate had told Philip, “I’ve broken all ten commandments. But I know that Jesus died for me. I know he has paid the price for me.” It’s testimonies like these that keep him faithful to his task.

(*Name changed as per GoodSeed policy.)

Author: Amos Kwok

Curriculum development manager at the international office.