By: Debbie Hester, Matters of the Heart Ministries, Winter Haven, FL
When someone talks about unreached people groups it’s easy to imagine indigenous tribes living in thatched huts tucked away in the surroundings of a dense lush green jungle with no running water or electricity, and dark nights display innumerable stars which sparkle like white diamonds on black velvet. Although the soil of this hidden place may not have been touched yet by the feet of missionaries, the existence of the One True and Eternal God is proclaimed daily through the voice of His creation.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1 New International Version Bible)
There is another segment of the population not so far away which is also hidden from the sight and sound of most people. They live behind impenetrable heavy steel doors and tall large brick walls which are topped with razor sharp barbed wire. This mission field is ripe for harvest yet seems virtually untapped by the church as a whole. It’s usually out of the way as most detention centers, county jails, or federal penitentiaries are located in rural places.
“A 1991 federal survey found that 390 prisons were located in rural and small-town settings, housing 44 percent of all state and federal prisoners. More than 200 of those prisons have been built since 1980. But the crimes the prisoners committed occurred mostly in cities.” [i]
Although there are visits with family and friends, the number can dwindle over time due to factors such as long distance driving or the emotional turmoil of painful heart-wrenching experiences when seeing a loved one in prison scrubs, or worse, shackled.
Still, there are scriptures which imply visiting prisoners is important.
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? 15 And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?’ As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15)
Jesus also mentions being cared for in various ways, even being visited in prison.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” They asked, 39“When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? 40 The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.”(Matthew 25:35-36, 39-40)
So, if Jesus sees visiting them as visiting him, might there be an implication of neglecting him if we are not visiting them?
Inmates are not statistics with assigned numbers. They are people with names for whom Christ died. While some experience “jailhouse religion”, those who repent grace, mercy, forgiveness, and cleansing from sin. And, the hardest heart can become tender when touched by God’s unfailing love; minds can be renewed and lives transformed through God’s word.
Our perspective can be quite different from God’s because most people tend to live in the here and now; but God declares the end from the beginning, and that His purpose will stand. (Isaiah 46:10) While we see them currently incarcerated, maybe He sees beyond their incarceration, into their inauguration of life and destiny in Him. He plans to prosper not harm, to give hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11) And,
“It was for freedom that Christ has set us free.”(Galatians 5:1a)
“Prison ministry is a mission field you can be involved in without having to go half-way around the world. There are opportunities for outreach to prisoners in every state. People in prison are at the lowest point of their lives. They have lost everything. Many want to change but they don’t know how, and this is the time when they are most open to receiving the gospel message.” [ii]
Consider the possibility of being the answer to someone’s prayer. Mom’s, Dad’s, family, and friends are asking God to send those who willingly pour out His love, His word, and impart healing through Holy Spirit to the wounded souls of their loved ones.
Harvest fields throughout the whole world are ripe; so is this harvest field behind the wall. There are a number of ways to become involved. A good place to begin is by reaching out to the Chaplain at the local jail. They are happy to facilitate willing volunteers. This ministry is not complicated; it’s simply a labor of love!
It has become much more than a possible untapped ministry market to me. I’ve discovered priceless treasure within these precious ones I’m blessed to visit. Our perception changes when we look at others through the lens of God’s love. We start seeing others as He does, and we also start seeing them as Him!
There is an occasional bittersweet moment as I realize some of them will be gone the next time I come. Even so, at the end of our visit, I leave with a grateful heart for the blessing of this opportunity I’ve been afforded. And, I can’t help but say, “Thank you, Jesus, for letting me come visit with you.”
If you should have even a small desire within your heart to do this, I want to encourage you to go for it! You will find it to be a remarkably amazing part of your journey in life.
[i] http://www.hcn.org/issues/38/1123, (Accessed July 6, 2017)
[ii] https://www.prisonfellowship.org/resources/training-resources/in-prison/on-going-ministry/joining-an-in-prison-ministry/, (Accessed July 7, 2017)