When I tell people that prison changed my life... they usually stop, look rather uncomfortable... and I can tell by looking at them they are flipping through a rolodex of crimes in their mind, pondering which one I might have committed. This awkward moment allows me the perfect opportunity to explain that I am a pastor who works and plants churches inside prisons... and that I work with incarcerated men. At this point in the conversation, the person with whom I am talking switches from wondering what crime I committed to looking at me oddly. You see, I have been told that I do not look like a pastor who works inside prisons... especially with men. I have yet to determine what that person would look like... but me: a woman, who wears glittery eyeglasses, sparkly shoes, and is almost always carrying a Starbucks coffee in one hand, while carrying a designer handbag in the other... apparently this is not the image one conjures up in their mind. However, God sees things differently.
A couple of years ago, I would have laughed out loud at the thought of going inside a prison. But, God...
One has to be careful about declaring specific scenarios as something they would "never" do. Also, I have learned that the most dangerous prayer a Christian can pray is, "Here I am, God. Send me." In my arrogance and pride, I remember listing ministries I would never consider and prison was a close second to youth group. My God has an incredible sense of humor!
The most common question I am asked about prison ministry is, "Are you ever afraid?". Honestly, I have never been afraid. Mercy Unleashed has ministered to thousands of offenders and not once was I ever afraid. This is not because I am brave... but because God is good. The men I have met are just like you and me. The difference between them and us? They got caught. We have all done something that could have gone a different direction. We have all sinned and fallen short of God's glory. On occasion when I say this, there is that one person who kind of shakes their head, because they can't think of a situation in their lives that could have gone a different way; they were never at the wrong place at the wrong time; they have never had a traffic violation. To those people, my response is: Come inside the prison with me. Join a discipleship group and listen to their stories... you will likely rethink your position.
When I first started Mercy Unleashed, I was so excited at the thought of going inside the prisons and blessing the men with our time and teaching them more about Jesus and the Bible... maybe even helping them see the error of their ways and getting them back on the "right track". Again, my arrogance and pride were on full display.
We had 25 men show up to discipleship groups that first night and we were divided into 6 groups. My group of men began to talk about their lives and their faith; their relationship with Jesus and how God had saved their lives. They showed me pictures of children they don't see anymore and wives who have divorced them while they were in prison. They talked about their parents and their siblings.. their remorse and their loneliness. They cried about the funerals they had missed and the goodbyes they never got say; they proudly spoke of the new skills they had learned and the businesses they longed to start once they were released. They bragged about children who were accepted into college and with tears in their eyes, they talked about daughters who walked down the aisle, being given away by another man. They asked for prayers for parents with cancer and grandmothers who no longer had anyone to mow their yards. And then they looked at me and said, "Pastor Bernie, how can we pray for you?".
When I got home, that first night... I cried and I prayed. I cried out to God, asking Him why. Why had He sent me inside the prisons. Surely I was the wrong person. There had to be someone stronger, smarter, and more capable than me; someone who was a better, more seasoned pastor than I was. Someone who always knew the right thing to say... someone who wouldn't weep with the men. I cried and prayed for the children who didn't have their daddies kissing them goodnight and for the mothers who longed to hug their sons. Through tears, I prayed by name for the men in my group.I prayed for their protection and for their futures. I prayed for the officers who work inside the prison, praying that God would give them wisdom, discernment, and compassion.
When I opened my Bible, to read before going to sleep that night, my next reading was Hebrews 13.
"Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering." ~Hebrews 13:1-3
I realized then that this was no mistake. It was me who was supposed to be inside the prisons. I was capable... I was the pastor God was sending. Everything in my life had been leading up to this moment and God was wasting nothing. He reminded me of my past and assured me He would always give me the words to speak... and that even Jesus wept. He reminded me that we were all made in His image and that we were forgiven and redeemed by the Prince of Peace; we were all wonderfully and fearfully made and that we are called to love and glorify God and to love His people... without distinction. That is when I realized that I had been blessed as much, if not more, than the blessings I gave that first night in prison.
That was the night prison changed my life.