A church congregation doesn’t have to be large in number to influence a community. Instead, it takes a heartfelt commitment to serve, as well as faith in the Holy Spirit’s power.
The approximately 50 attending members of the Okeechobee, Florida, Adventist Church—my home church—have learned this firsthand. Although small in number, we currently are giving almost 270 Bible studies—more than five times our weekly church attendance. In November 2012 we conducted a baptism for 54 new believers!
So how could this happen?
“When we opened our eyes to the mission possibilities that God had before us, our lives began to change in ways we never imagined,” says church pastor Rafael Fernandez. “We found people who were literally waiting for an invitation to study the Word of God—and they were all housed at our local prison.”
Pastor Fernandez had been ministering to the local Okeechobee prison by leading out each month in a worship service at the prison’s chapel. What began as a program that only about a half dozen men attended, eventually grew to fill the facility’s capacity of 220. Several inmates began approaching Pastor Fernandez, asking for more material to read, more Bible studies, something to keep them fed spiritually in between his visits. At this point the pastor decided to recruit some help, so he called me and asked if I would be interested in assisting with a new project: offering prison inmates correspondence Bible studies using the Amazing Facts Bible Study Guides. Working with prison ministries sparked my interest.After much prayer and discussion, we decided to move forward in faith, trusting in the Lord’s leading.
First we obtained a list of those who attended prison services each week, which totaled about 240 of the almost 1,800 inmates. Our goal was to offer the inmates more than merely lessons to grade and send back; we wanted them to know there was someone on the other end of those lessons who cared for them, who was willing to share God’s Word with them and offer them encouragement. We realized that would take more volunteers than just me.
The following Sabbath Pastor Fernandez and I appealed to the church members to answer God’s call to minister to those in prison (see Matt. 25:36). Fifteen people immediately agreed to serve as Bible study instructors. Two weeks later we offered an orientation for the instructors, providing them with a small kit that included answer sheets for each lesson, extra stamps and envelopes, and a list of inmates with whom they would be working until the completion of the program.
Each instructor remains with the same inmates throughout the program—this is a key point. The course is about more than Bible study; it’s about making a connection, building a relationship, offering the inmates assurance that there’s someone who cares about them and their walk with Christ. We are careful to keep our communications focused on them—their spiritual growth and leading them to a knowledge of Jesus Christ. We also retain anonymity for the instructors.
I then wrote a letter to each of the 240 inmates, inviting them to study the Word of God with us through these lessons. Included were the first two study guides and a self-addressed, stamped envelope in which to mail back the completed studies.
More than 100 inmates responded to the first mailing! As director of the program, the prison officials send all the mail to me. I then disburse the letters and answer sheets to the instructors at church on Sabbath and prayer meeting during the week. After we grade the study sheets, we return them, along with the next two study guides and another self-addressed, stamped envelope. We always write words of encouragement on their answer sheets, and often include a small note with a scripture.
I set up a database to keep track of each student’s progress. If we don’t receive answer sheets for a few weeks, the instructor will send the inmate a simple card, stating that we are praying for them and are looking forward to hearing from them.
The response has been tremendous. Throughout the 18 months we’ve been involved in this ministry, inmates have sent us scores of homemade cards and letters thanking us for caring about them and being willing to minister to them.
“This ministry has been a help to me from the beginning, and I pray it will never stop,” one inmate wrote. “We need the love that comes from you all, real love from men and women of God.”
“You’ve shown me that God’s Word can be trusted,” another wrote. “God loves everyone, good and bad. All people are His creation.”
These inmates are also spreading the word to fellow inmates, rapidly increasing the number of Bible studies.
God is blessing not only the prison inmates but the instructors as well. Some 20 church members are now enlisted in this ministry—more than one third of our attending church body! Other members have become prayer partners. Even more important, God has opened our eyes to see others as He sees them. He has given us a new perspective on those He died to save, which has changed our lives. We’re now a church united in purpose, focused on reaching out to these forgotten people in our community.
“The men have shown a true interest in learning about Jesus,” says volunteer Bible instructor Eric Cheshire. “It’s been an absolute joy to witness them being baptized, even behind prison walls. Now they are truly free.”
“This ministry is forward-reaching, with unlimited growth potential,” adds instructor Cindy Bestol. “These men want to grow in the Lord, and their eagerness has sparked my own desire for spiritual steps forward.”
The ministry indeed continues to grow. We have prayed for financial resources, and at each step the Lord has provided. There was no master plan for this outreach endeavor, yet the Lord has guided us each step of the way. And we continue to look for new approaches to reach out to even more of the inmates.
Although our goal is to lead the Bible students to a knowledge of Jesus Christ, we don’t want to leave them there. We also desire to nurture them in the faith, disciple them, and teach them to be spiritual leaders in the prison and in their homes and local communities when they’re released. So we’re now instituting a discipleship program for the Bible study graduates using a curriculum that Florida Conference has developed. This isn’t a correspondence program; rather, discipleship classes will be conducted for groups of inmates at the prison. Our church is excited about this new endeavor.
Countless men and women in prison are searching for meaning to their existence, for hope, for something or someone who can lift them above their current circumstances.
One of the individuals baptized last November will soon be released. He served more than 10 years in prison, but his attitude is positive. He explained to me that because in prison all distractions were taken away from him, he had an opportunity to review and reevaluate his life, and to develop a desire to search for something better. He found Christ in prison, he said, and he would not change that for anything.
“All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory—everyone,” Pastor Fernandez says. “Because of what Jesus is doing in our own lives every day, we are sharing His love with those in prison. And their reaction has been overwhelming. This ministry has been blessed beyond measure.”
The Lord is the one who opens doors so we can touch people’s lives and bring healing and salvation. The only thing He requires is a willing heart.
For more information about Okeechobee church prison ministries, e-mail Pastor Fernandez at [email protected]