By / Dec 12

When she passed by an “angel” tree in the lobby of Fairview Church in Lebanon, Tennessee, almost 20 years ago, Denise Vermeulen was intrigued by the paper angels hanging on the Christmas tree and asked the volunteer for more information. She was surprised to learn that each angel represented a local child who had one or both of their parents incarcerated, and the church was gathering Christmas gifts for them. 

“When she explained it to me, I just started bawling,” said Vermeulen. “This particular angel tree ministry was something that really resonated with me.” 

Vermeulen’s father was a drug addict and dealer and was in and out of prison most of her childhood, as well as her adult life.

Christmas was often a hard time for Vermeulen and her family when she was a child. Her parents were divorced, leaving her mother to raise three young children on her own. Her grandparents provided as much as they could for their grandchildren, and she has many happy Christmas memories with them. However, her contact with her father was intermittent, often via a letter from jail, and Vermeulen only remembers only receiving one gift from him after her parents’ divorce. 

“He was actually so big time that he was on the TBI list,” she said. “The last time they got him, not only did he have a large amount of cocaine and marijuana in the car, but he also shot at a police officer, and they got him on that, too,” Vermeulen said. His last arrest landed her father in jail for decades. 

That day in the church lobby, Vermeulen was so moved that she began to assist with the program at that time and later started serving as the church coordinator. 

Remembering families affected by a loved one’s incarceration

Prison Fellowship Angel Tree is a program that serves incarcerated parents by giving them a pathway to restore and strengthen relationships with their children and families. Through this ministry, children receive gifts, the gospel message, and a personal message of love on behalf of their mom or dad behind bars.

More than 5 million children, or 1 in 14, in the U.S. have had a parent in state or federal prison at some point in their lives, according to the Casey Foundation. And those statistics don’t consider adults, like Vermeulen, who have this experience in their past. 

Vermeulen encourages everyone to remember: “It’s not the children’s fault.” 

“As a child, you should not have to deal with the consequences of your parents’ decisions. But these children deal with those consequences every single day. This is why it is so dear to my heart. I want them to know I understand.” 

“To me, for the children to get a gift and know that their parent is thinking about them, regardless of the mistakes that they’ve made, that really spoke to me, because I never felt that way.”  

“When you’re a kid, you don’t understand mom or dad is in prison,” Vermeulen said. “All you know is that it’s Christmas, and they should give you a present no matter what,” she laughs. 

Vermeulen and her church are able to both gather the gifts and host a Christmas party to distribute them to the children of incarcerated parents in their community. Participating families come to the church to pick up their gifts and stay for a pizza party with games and arts and crafts. 

“It’s about the children, letting them know they are loved and sharing the Gospel with them,” Vermeulen said. 

For more information about the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree program, visit prisonfellowship.org.

*A version of this story previously appeared in Wilson Living magazine. 

By / Apr 21

Chelsea Sobolik welcomes David Jimenez, manager of government affairs for Prison Fellowship. They discuss what Second Chance month is and why it is important for churches and communities to remember those in prison. They also discuss ongoing efforts to reform our prison and criminal justice systems in ways that promote the biblical ideas of justice, proportionality, and human dignity – without compromising public safety.

Guest Biography

David Jimenez serves as the manager of government affairs for Prison Fellowship’s advocacy and public policy team, where he oversees federal and state legislative campaigns. His background is in public policy advocacy and institution building, most recently as a primary manager for the American Enterprise Institute’s outreach to college students, faculty, and administrators. As an undergraduate at Bowdoin College in Maine, Jimenez studied history and political theory. After graduating, he participated in the Hudson Institute’s Political Studies Fellowship and was a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Romania.

A proud alumnus of Prison Fellowship’s internship program, he first became passionate about criminal justice reform while serving urban youth in New Jersey, where he saw up close the urgent need for restorative approaches to incarceration, law enforcement, and violence. He is passionate about theology, social policy, ethics, and culture. A Pittsburgh native, Jimenez lives in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Apr 6

One of the amazing truths about the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is not bound by anyone or anything. There is no person, no sin, no location, no background, and no circumstance that can hinder the reach of the gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit. And one of the places this is most powerfully seen is inside the walls of a prison. A prison can be a place of darkness, violence, and despair. Men and women have forfeited their freedom – for a season or for life – and have to face the consequences of their choices. That’s where places like New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary come in, with a desire to serve those who are so often forgotten. Jody Dean, associate professor of Christian Education and senior regional associate dean for Extension Centers, discusses the prison ministry at NOBTS, the importance of theological education, and what the church can learn from our brothers and sisters who are a part of this program. 

Lindsay: Tell us a little bit about the prison ministry you do through New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and your undergraduate college at Louisiana State Penitentiary and other prisons.

Jody Dean: Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary) was known as a horrible prison for violence among the prison system throughout the nation. The warden, through our former president at the time, was able to work out a partnership for us to offer theological education inside the prison. So, through the undergraduate program, we were able to offer the associate’s and undergraduate bachelor’s degrees, which allows prisoners to earn a Christian ministry degree, and makes them able to minister inside that prison. Because of this, we have seen a direct correlation between our programs in the prison and a decrease in many aspects of prison culture, such as gang activity and violence. The radical transformation of the gospel of Jesus Christ was changing the prison culture. It began with that radical transformation, which then led to people wanting to be equipped for ministry, and even plant churches inside of the prison. Overall, it is great to see that the prison was seeing the improvements they wanted to.

From the results of that, we have seen other states want to do a similar kind of work, and some have done it with us. Our bandwidth has allowed us to reach out to a women’s prison here in Louisiana, a program in central Mississippi, a program in Georgia, and a program in Florida. In fact, another school took on one of the programs we had in Georgia. Some of our sister seminaries and Baptist colleges have also started doing this work in other parts of our nation, too. 

We are just so thankful to see the growth of prison programs as people have received the gospel and want to minister as field ministers and plant churches. It’s been great to see what God has done over several decades of being able to do this work.

LN: What is a field minister? 

JD: A field minister is someone who is able to do what I am not able to do. That is, they are able to have an ongoing relationship with somebody else within the prison. They are able to teach and preach the Bible, and to be alongside their neighbors in their community. Essentially, they’re able to do everything that I’m able to do in the local church. For the most part, they’re able to offer pastoral care, discipleship, and even accountability. While there may be limitations in some settings of what the field ministers are able to do, they are the front-line ministers in the prison community, alongside chaplains.

LN: How does Scripture inform NOBTS’s ministry to prisoners? And with that foundation, what keeps you persevering when the road gets tough? 

JD: The Great Commission has always been a driving force of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. It was planted by Southern Baptists in New Orleans to equip missionaries for the gospel and to go into the hard-to-reach places. Our president, Dr. Jamie Dew, says “prepare here, serve anywhere,” and that applies to a prison context. It’s not necessarily the serve anywhere context you think you might land at, but it does allow us to prepare servants to walk with Christ, proclaim his truth, and fulfill his mission. 

We have the Great Commission from Matthew on our seal, and when you see that seal on your diploma, you know that you’re part of that Great Commission to go teach people about Jesus and share the gospel. We have pictures of people being baptized inside prison and have seen evidence of the gospel just transforming people’s lives. Scripture is the foundation to everything that we do, and Jesus’ ministry showed us how to be the hands and feet of Jesus to all people, wherever they may be. We have tried to be that as well in theological education, to equip people, and call them to ministry wherever they may be.

LN: When you are engaged in this ministry, what does that look like? 

Jd: It is primarily people going inside and teaching in person, especially with the limited internet access that the inmates have with people on the outside of the prison walls. Some of those are in a workshop. Most of those are weekly and ongoing, like a normal semester environment with weekly instruction. Sometimes it’s our trustee-elected faculty and sometimes it’s adjuncts and ministers that live in proximity to be able to drive in. But we have the same qualifications to teach as is needed for an accredited degree. 

We have a great group of people that help make the program happen in those contexts to teach the classes, pour into the students, grade their work, and mentor them in their classes. We teach English and statistics, as well as church planting, counseling, and other courses on discipleship.

LN: How have you seen the prison ministry help to change the prison culture through redemption and restoration?

JD: In Angloa, we saw all the metrics reduce, as far as violence, gang activity, and all the other things that we wanted to see improve inside of prison. The radical transformation of the gospel, as we know, impacts all of our lives, whether we’re incarcerated or not. People accept Christ. We’ve also seen these guys that want to be equipped to minister inside the prison since you can’t leave to go to church. We started seeing churches planted inside the prison and the gospel move throughout the prison. We saw all the men just continuing to minister and reach out. They allowed them to be field ministers as graduates of the program inside Angola, and then they will also sometimes be transferred to other prisons to be able to do ministry too.

This ministry causes them to be mobilized — to be sent out as a field minister, sometimes into an unknown location or into an unknown section of the prison. This is like moving to a whole new community. With that comes all the ministry challenges: building relationships and living out your faith, even when it’s not convenient. The radical transformation of people now walking with Christ and wanting to proclaim his truth to other people has been amazing to see throughout the prison systems that offer theological training throughout the nation.

LN: What is the role of education in helping these prisoners feel a sense of dignity? 

JD: It’s so important for them to be reminded that Jesus knows exactly where they are and still cares for them. I truly believe in Jeremiah 29:11, as far as having a plan for our lives, but I think the students at Angola and these other locations could help us really understand Jeremiah 29:13 which says, “You will seek me and know me when you seek me with all of your heart.” 

What amazes me is when I’m able to go and be there for a milestone or a graduation celebration. You get to be there with their family and celebrate with them and you’re reminded that these men and women have sought the Lord through circumstances that radically changed their lives. And though their life was radically changed, to put them in the context that they’re in, the Lord has done something wonderful in that and they have found a relationship with him and a call to ministry. They’re reaching hundreds for Christ, and the churches are growing as the local congregations are planted and they’re ministering to people each and every day. 

They still have struggles, of course, like all of us that have accepted Christ, but they have been able to find peace on the journey and are now able to help other people. That has been so encouraging to see with this program — it has helped drive them to find purpose in ministering to one another. I really think that’s why Angola saw many metrics change, that caused it to go from a violent location to be considerably less violent.

Lindsay: What are some misconceptions about ministering in prisons?

Jody: I think sometimes a misconception is how people measure effectiveness, because it’s not something we see daily. Sometimes I have heard people ask, “How effective is it?” because not everybody sees all the field ministers who have gone out over the years, all the work that has been accomplished with the churches planted, and all the people reached. But it’s an effective work that is making a kingdom impact — it’s changing the face of eternity by way of reaching people and making disciples. 

Another misconception is that theological education is not needed in prison. There’s a lot of trade education in prisons, but theological education is needed just as much as every other form of education in a community is needed. They need ministers that can reach and make disciples. So, there is a need for churches and there is a need for equipping students for all areas of ministry as they serve in their context.

LN: What advice would you give to churches and believers who want to get involved with or start a prison ministry?

JD: It’s going to take time, and that’s the most expensive resource. It takes talents, so you’ve got to have the diversity of giftedness to pull it off. But really, it’s also going to take money. It’s expensive, and it can’t just be a quick ministry. It’s going to have to be ongoing and continual. You want to make sure that you, as a church, are ready to come alongside prisons, really engage and support those you serve, and that it’s an ongoing part of your funding to be able to provide needs. You may discover that prisoners need gloves for cold weather, or notebooks, or textbooks, or even Bibles. There are a variety of needs you will discover, and you will want to be able to provide these resources. And that’s going to come at a cost. 

So, I would tell churches to weigh the time, to weigh the giftedness, and to weigh the financial components, because it will tug at your heart. There will also be some days that you’re tired and weary, but it is a fulfilling work that makes a great kingdom impact.

LN: How does being a Southern Baptist entity help further this ministry? 

JD: I think it is so important that we’re able to provide the education preparation for ministry in churches. The churches are able to partner and come alongside us by encouraging, by providing resources, by providing love, and by providing compassion. All the prison programs have local churches that also support them. I’ve seen local churches provide a meal at a graduation, care packages as a semester starts, and money to help the program exist. I’ve even seen state conventions and local associations come alongside and buy textbooks, aid in planting the churches, and provide all kinds of needs as discovered. 

It is a collective work of Southern Baptists. As we all collaborate on this, along with the state conventions and NAMB, it is important because we are able to have chaplains, theological education, churches being planted, and churches partnering with churches on the inside. This work is a ministry of encouragement to the programs and the people that are a part of these programs.

LN: What can we learn from these men and women who are in physical chains but are seeing the Lord set them free? 

A lesson I have learned from these prisoners is their unwavering commitment, no matter where they’re located and no matter what environment they find themselves in. They have an unwavering commitment to the Lord. That is the lesson: for each of us to strive to live for him each day. And the students continue to teach me that.

LN: Are there any ways that we, as churches, can be praying for this ministry?

JD: Continue to pray for the students. Pray for the teachers, faculty, staff, and administrators. Pray that the Lord continues to provide the finances needed and that the Lord continues to sustain us in all the ways in which we do this.

By / Apr 4

Brenna and Grove Norwood have given their lives to remembering those who are in prison (Heb. 13:3) through The Heart of Texas Foundation. Together with their staff, donors, and other partners, Brenna, the director of programs, and Grove, the CEO, watch God transform men and women in the midst of very difficult circumstances. The work is not easy, but it is a testament to what God will do when Christians obey his Word by carrying the gospel to and caring for those among us who are in great need — physically and spiritually. Below, Brenna answers a few questions about prison ministry and how Christ brings light and hope to the darkest of places. 

Lindsay Nicolet: Tell us a little bit about the Heart of Texas Foundation and what led to its inception?

Brenna Norwood: The Heart of Texas Foundation was born out of a desire to serve those who have nothing to give back in return and the literal poor. In the earliest days, it began with Grove asking in every part of the community, “Who is the poorest person you know?” In the process, we began to visit prisons because the Lord clearly commands us to remember the prisoner.

LN: How did the Lord lead you into prison ministry? 

BN: Our church was volunteering in prisons. By going, we began to learn how the church interacts with the corrections system and how the corrections system thinks and works. It became clear that there are prisons within prison, such as the inner prison referred to in Acts 16:24 which Paul and Silas experienced. In addition, most programming offered for the prisoner is understandably focused on men and women who are finishing their sentence. 

Programming and access to men and women in the inner prison and those with long prison sentences remains minimal, yet this is where our work lies. We are occasionally still asked by those we serve who might not yet know the Lord, “Why do you keep coming back?” Our answer truly is in 2 Corinthians 5:13-15, specifically the love of Christ compels and controls us.

LN: The hallmark of your foundation is the Texas Field Ministers program. What comprises this program? 

BN: The Texas Field Ministers Program focuses on men and women with extremely long prison sentences. It consists of two related parts: 1.) Education and 2.) Service. The men and women who are our students in The Heart of Texas Foundation | College of Ministry pursue the Bachelor of Arts in Applied Ministry. Upon graduation, they are sent in teams of two or more to serve as Field Ministers for the remainder of their sentence, an official job title within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that allows them to reach men and women in the inner prison.

LN: What led to the focus of the foundation being education in ministry? Why is this so important? 

BN: Prisons are full of men and women who caused great harm. They are full of men and women who have been the recipients of great harm. The Texas Field Ministers Program allows an entirely new identity to exist for the man or woman with a long prison sentence — an identity other than the crime they committed, the peer-to-peer inmate culture, or the mentality brought on by institutionalization. If a man or woman has a long prison sentence, how can they show that they have met the rehabilitative goals of society or the prison system itself if they are not given the opportunity to display such evidence on a daily basis? The Bachelor of Arts in Applied Ministry takes four and a half years to complete. We developed the 42-course curriculum after 10 years of experience in this work specifically to give men and women time to learn, grow, and prove they can be trusted with an opportunity to serve others as a Texas Field Minister. 

Even though men and women are familiar with the environment they are living in, that alone does not equip them to minister effectively in the storm of trauma and life they run into amongst their peers. To impact the culture of the prison for good and for the Lord, that takes equipment, support, and time met best through excellent Christ-centered education from godly men and women of integrity relying on the Lord for his ultimate work in each student’s life. Our United States Coast Guard, for example, has a rescue helicopter and crew equipped for the most extreme conditions. While they won’t use everything they know in every situation, everything they know will serve them well in any situation. That’s why education — Christ-centered discipleship is important for Texas Field Ministers equipped with the gospel to go into the darkest of places. 

LN: How have you seen the Field Ministers program transform the lives of prisoners? 

BN: Men and women have come to faith in Christ among the student body. Men and women share the good news of Jesus Christ with others in an informed and relational way such that the body of Christ is strengthened in a manner that volunteers alone cannot do. Men and women in the Texas Field Ministers Program have credibility with their peers so long as they maintain a consistent lifestyle. 

The good news of Jesus in the hearts of men and women creates ripple effects of his goodness and order. The men and women we serve consistently begin to reach out to their children in a new and unselfish way (Malachi 4:6; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21). Every crime creates a ripple effect — the victim of the crime, the family of the victim, the family of the perpetrator, and society. Studies show that 7-8 out of 10 children will follow their parent into prison. The gospel can change that. We have witnessed that many, many times.

LN: Why should Christians care about and for prisoners? What does the Bible say about it? 

BN: Four books of the New Testament were written by Paul from prison. The Lord commands us to remember the prisoner in Hebrews 13:3 and sees when we do according to Matthew 25:36. Spiritually speaking, prison is a state that we are all in before Christ according to Galatians 3:22, mercy from which we can only receive from God according to Romans 11:32. We cannot escape the reality of prison. The Lord builds this into every human life. 

When we visit the prisoner in the name of Christ Jesus, his grace is built into that visit so that it is a blessing not just for the one in prison, but for the visitor as well. Prison is an awful, dark place, yet the light of Christ shines brightly there among those who are his. It’s not easy to go. Going has a way of refining all of your deepest held beliefs about life. We have found that only Christ and the work of the cross restores us after each visit.

LN: How would you advise Christians who have a desire to serve in prison ministry but don’t know where to start? 

BN: There are so many faithful men and women in the body of Christ visiting the prisoner without fanfare — just beautifully faithful. Prayerfully ask and seek those who are already doing some of the work. Where you begin might not be where the Lord leads you to serve ultimately. Ask questions. Be willing to learn. Be willing to listen. When you go, respect the authority on the prison unit. You will encounter a broken, slow system, but the prison system has reasons for why they do everything, primarily having to do with safety and security including yours — respect the authority that is there. That authority begins with the newest correctional officer. Expect to serve and not be served from the time you enter the parking lot to the time you leave.

LN: What are some of the misconceptions about and challenges of ministering to prisoners? And how can Christians have a correct view of prison ministry and faithfully steward this calling? 

BN: Misconceptions regarding prisoners are many: 1.) That prisoners are lower in intelligence or in their ability to learn (However, it is true that literacy levels are very low in prison across the population, but literacy is not an intelligence issue. So often, it’s an instructional casualty issue or a casualty of a life of the chaos one did not choose to grow up in.)  2.) That they must all be from the same socioeconomic background and therefore race must not be as big as an issue. Times have changed; if you asked your church family for a show of hands if they have someone in their family who has been incarcerated in the criminal justice system on any level, many hands would go up that might be surprising.

Misconceptions about prison ministry might be summed up in that prison ministry is not for the weird, biker-type Christian or the former drug addict. Every Christian is called to visit the prisoner. Remember those bound in chains. According to Christ, we may very well end up there ourselves just for following him. We can learn a lot from Paul who said that nothing but prison and hardships awaited him. “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). 

LN: What are some of the greatest needs of prisoners, and how can Christians rise up to help meet some of them? 

BN: They need the body of Christ to come and visit them. They need a Field Minister — a mature man or woman of God living beside them who can help them in their greatest hour of need at any time of day. They need the gospel deeply planted in their hearts and minds. They do not need people to feel sorry for them; they need people to love them unselfishly with the love of Christ who keep coming back to visit them — the impact is in the returning.

LN: If someone wanted to start something like this in their area, how would they begin? 

BN: Call us, we would love to talk. 281-850-8103 or [email protected]. You can do it with the Lord’s help and a few careful, prayerful steps. North Carolina, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Texas all have experience; we are colleagues in the work each of us is a part of in our states. We would be glad to connect you with our peers.

By / Jul 13

Many people are released from prison with little more than a bus ticket and a bit of cash. Walking free can feel exhilarating — and terrifying.

“You’re used to the structured environment and people telling you when to wake up,” says Jason, a formerly incarcerated man from Detroit. “[After prison] your freedom is given to you all over again. I don’t think anything can prepare you for that moment.”

Struggles after incarceration

More than 600,000 people return home from incarceration each year. Jason’s journey out of prison, along with the reentry stories of Jeffrey (“Hajee”) in Virginia and Alona in Oklahoma, begins to unfold on screen in A New Day 1, a new documentary short film by Prison Fellowship®.

Often, people leave prison without much support or stability. Jason, Hajee, and Alona each experienced exceptional levels of support, starting with Prison Fellowship Academy®, a long-term, intensive program, and continuing postrelease with halfway houses, churches, family, and community. And each of them still experienced difficult hurdles on the path forward.

People who commit crimes should be held accountable, seek help dealing with issues underlying their behavior, and make an effort to repair the harm they have caused. Once people have paid their debt to society, they should have a fresh start. But more than 44,000 documented legal restrictions, along with widespread social stigma, can hinder people who live in the shadow of a criminal record. Immediately past the prison gates, they face limited access to education, jobs, housing, and other necessities for a full and productive life. 

Jason struggled to secure a job due to his criminal record, which would make it difficult to pay his bills. Hajee, too, faced hurdles; he found work, but when his company faced financial struggles in the pandemic, Hajee was let go. Jason and Hajee both admitted they had to be diligent to surround themselves with positive influences in their old neighborhoods. Alona took back her responsibility of being a mother and primary caregiver for her three children while trying to follow her probation requirements and rules of the transition home. And the stress took a toll on her. 

All three of them knew reentry wouldn’t be easy. But when reality hit, the challenges could seem overwhelming.

And returning citizens aren’t the only ones who suffer when their past holds them back. When people with a criminal record face reentry barriers, their children and families are impacted, too. Not to mention society at large — the U.S. loses some $78 billion a year in economic output because people with a criminal record cannot participate fully in the workforce. 

Showing the hope of the gospel 

Too often, men and women stay trapped in the cycle: crime, incarceration, reentry, repeat. Not only do communities continue to experience the brokenness of crime; everyone misses out on the hope of second chances — the realized potential of people who have paid their debt to society and desire to contribute.

Each person is made in the image of God, and no life is beyond his reach. Followers of Christ are called to share the grace and truth of the gospel with all people and to minister to those who are marginalized or oppressed. The act of serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families in the name of Jesus is not only a ministry but also a means of worship and spiritual growth. Recognizing the basic, God-given dignity of each individual, we should create a culture that celebrates formerly incarcerated people’s worth and potential, regardless of their past.

Most people behind bars will be released one day. Many of us know someone who is doing time or has been incarcerated in the past, and their criminal record haunts them after they walk free. Your church can respond by addressing the needs of returning citizens and being a place of welcome. 

But we cannot effectively love and serve returning citizens without understanding the unique issues and challenges they face — from barriers to employment, to impact on families, to mental health struggles and social reproach.

 A New Day 1 allows us to witness the journeys of people leaving prison, so we might learn, empathize, and respond to our own formerly incarcerated neighbors with the love of Christ. Prison Fellowship’s free, downloadable discussion guide for A New Day 1 will help you explore next steps for engaging further. Gather your friends, small group, or coworkers for a virtual or in-person screening of the film, and then unpack it together using the prepared questions and helpful information.

By / Apr 29

One of the most COVID-effected demographics is rarely mentioned: Prisoners. Already a population incredibly vulnerable to substance abuse, depression and loneliness, the toll for safety was high — and didn’t ultimately protect them very well. One in 5 have tested positive for the virus, and at least 2,700 have died. The New York Times reported triple the rate of COVID-19 infections from that of the general population inside American prisons. 

It’s past time to recognize the humanity of this population of more than 2 million image-bearers. April is “Second Chance Month,” an effort by Prison Fellowship to spotlight criminal justice reform and programming to help prisoners reenter society. Because there is no structure in place for men and women leaving prison, many walk out the door with nothing but the clothes on their back. Some don’t even have an I.D. Often without money or housing, the allure back to substance abuse or criminal lifestyle is high because it is one of few options. 

Things may be even harder now. 

On top of the contagion, in 2020 prisoners abruptly lost access to visitors and in-person programming by nonprofits and ministries aiming to bring light, life, and restoration. As the rest of the world mourned in-person gatherings, prisoners without any access to the outside world may have grieved it the most. 

Ninety-five percent of prisoners eventually reenter society, and the government offers no assistance upon reentry. The results are devastating. Two of 3 former inmates will be back behind bars within three years, furthering a toxic cycle of criminality that ultimately bleeds into the next generation. The children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to be later incarcerated themselves. 

Men of Valor 

But God has called a group of people to minister specifically to this group. In 1976, after serving a short sentence in prison, Chuck Colson started Prison Fellowship, which spawned local prison ministries across the country, like Tennessee’s Men of Valor. These organizations are bringing God’s love, hope, and tangible resources to a population the rest of the world too easily hidden and forgotten. 

COVID-19 made programming harder, but Men of Valor was able to pivot and see God moving in incredible ways that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. “It’s kind of cracked the nut on getting some virtual programming into prisons,” said Program Director Curt Campbell over the phone. “We also got permission to show a faith-based variety show, including testimonies, sermons, and motivational videos.” 

Campbell said most prisons have a closed circuit TV channel that plays inside cells, where their show broadcasts. Thus, men who may never have attended a chapel service or Bible class will hear the gospel when they never would have before. 

Beyond adapting to COVID-19 restrictions, Men of Valor has kept a strong focus on their core initiative, a 1-year reentry mentoring and discipling program for 93 men at a time. After learning about and participating with Men of Valor while in prison, men can apply for the “After Care and Re-Entry” program, which boasts incredible results: Only 10% of those who complete the program go back to prison, compared to 66% of those who don’t. 

Incredibly, COVID-19 affected this program “more positively than negatively,” said Campbell. Because they received funding through the CARES Act (enacted to provide swift economic relief for those affected by COVID-19), Men of Valor was able to expand their programming capabilities to include virtual and socially-distanced learning spaces.They were able to keep the program near capacity, and most men were able to continue working. 

Being accepted into the program can be a huge relief. Once released from prison, accepted participants receive a home, food, clothing, transportation, and help securing valid I.D. and part-time employment. Beyond those basic needs, spiritual needs take priority through mentoring, discipleship, anger management, accountability, personal counseling, and more. 

Because of this program, men like Joshua Higdon say they are “thankful” for their time in prison. After growing up and joining a hate group gang at a young age, Higdon ultimately developed a drug addiction and found himself in prison. “The men that God moved into my life,” he said via video, ”showed me his grace, showed me his mercy and showed me his love.” 

Wearing a t-shirt inscribed with “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” atop a spate of tattoos, Higdon described how a bi-racial friendship inside of prison changed his views on race and led him to the post-incarceration Men of Valor program. 

At a time when many Christians are redefining their view of “pro-life” to include care and compassion for the most vulnerable citizens, it’s appropriate to view post-incarcerated men as such. They have broken the law and made mistakes, but have little chance to rehabilitate and start again without authentic love, financial support, and spiritual guidance to help them get there. They can’t do this on their own, and organizations like Men of Valor and Prison Fellowship are stepping up to ensure they don’t have to. 

By / Apr 21

Jeff Pickering welcomes back Heather Rice-Minus of Prison Fellowship to talk about the church, criminal justice reform, and why Christians value second chances. This episode comes as we are engaged in Second Chance Month, a nationwide effort each April to raise awareness about barriers to reentry and unlock brighter futures for people with a criminal record.

This conversation was recorded on Friday, April 16, the week before the verdict was announced in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. 

Guest Biography

Heather Rice-Minus serves as Senior Vice President of Advocacy and Church Mobilization at Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. She is a powerful, knowledgeable voice articulating the case for restorative criminal justice solutions. She is also the co-author of Outrageous Justice, a Bible study curriculum and book. A native of Virginia, Rice-Minus resides in Washington, D.C., with her husband and daughter, and they welcomed a second child as foster parents in 2020.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Apr 6

Imagine receiving a job offer. Your resume demonstrates the right qualifications. You feel good about the interview. It’s all coming together—until one thing makes the opportunity fall apart.

A college graduate, Angela once applied to work at a title company in Virginia. She had the relevant skills, prior work experience, and a bachelor’s degree from The Pennsylvania State University. But she also had a criminal record from past DUIs. Initially, the company offered Angela the job. After processing the background check, the company rescinded the offer.

Angela’s challenge belongs to a long list of legal barriers that people with a criminal record face. Known as collateral consequences, these hindrances affect nearly every facet of life, from employment and education, to housing and voting. The National Inventory of Collateral Consequences Conviction documents more than 44,000 legal collateral consequences that exist today—barriers that persist long after a person has paid their debt to society. Nearly 80% of these restrictions are permanent, even after a person is rehabilitated and reintegrated in society.

A shadow of the past 

Prison Fellowship® believes that everyone should have an opportunity to contribute to society. But for many like Angela, a simple background check can make or break a chance at gainful employment. Many people have trouble finding a place to rent because of their past. Even reinstating a driver’s license is a costly and complicated process. Angela knows this firsthand.

Soon, one hindrance leads to another: Without gainful employment, how will I support myself?

And these are just a few examples. Occupational licensing laws limit opportunities for many men and women with a criminal record to find a better employment path. Some licensing restrictions exist to promote public safety or set returning citizens up for success (e.g., someone with a fraud conviction should not work in finances right away).

However, most of these laws do little for public safety and deprive the community of good workers in necessary trades. In the U.S., 1 in 5 people need a license for their work—from electricians to cosmetologists to lawyers—but, because of a criminal record, are banned from jobs that they are otherwise qualified to do.

Other collateral consequences deny access to student loans, contracting, and other forms of participation in civic life. Criminal records can weigh into prospective students’ college applications, even though access to education can reduce a person’s likelihood of returning to crime.

Breaking down barriers

Americans love the idea that hard work brings success. That if we just put in the effort, we can achieve our goals. For the 70 million Americans with a criminal record, overwhelming obstacles stand in the way of a full, productive future. These hindrances often have no bearing on securing community safety or public good. Too often, stigmas and legal restrictions prolong punishment, despite the person having paid their debt to society and being ready to make good on a second chance.

Christians ought to celebrate redemption and allow people to contribute to society at their highest potential. Prison Fellowship is committed to advancing justice that restores and upholds the God-given value of all persons. We support restrictions to personal liberty only if they demonstrate a substantial link to protecting public safety.

People can flourish when needless barriers are eliminated. Studies even show that men and women with a criminal record could contribute some $78 billion more to the economy if more restrictions were lifted. People with criminal records have proven to be loyal, hardworking employees, motivated to make the most of their fresh start. And opportunities to start over feel like a gift to people who seek to live out their second chance.

“People want someone to recognize that they’re worth a second chance,” says Angela.

Today, Angela serves as the events and operations manager for Prison Fellowship’s advocacy team. She feels fortunate to use her many skill sets in the workplace—an opportunity many people with a criminal record still do not have.

Second chances create cycles of renewal and bright futures. And when people have a chance to redeem their futures, we all win.

Originally appeared on Prison Fellowship’s site

By / Feb 10

Jon Kelly was a troubled teen growing up with a single mother in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood. Multiple schools couldn’t keep him out of trouble. He dropped out of school by ninth grade.

“I was always high every day … always in fights, always getting shot at or shooting at somebody,” Jon says. “I for sure did not think I would make it past 16.”

Jon remembers the day he was arrested. He had just turned 19 two months before. He was taken to jail for his role in a murder.

A couple officers in the jail would talk to him from time to time. That first week, Jon was so bored that he asked if either of them could bring him something to read. The officers handed him a copy of the New Testament. On the cover were the words, “There’s hope for you. Jesus cares.”

“I read God’s Word for the first time,” Jon says, “and I haven’t been the same since.”

A change of heart

Jon had not yet gone to court when he surrendered his life to Jesus. His lawyer didn’t believe he was serious about his newfound faith, dismissing it as “jailhouse religion.” Even so, Jon knew what he had to do.

“Part of being a Christian is repenting and taking ownership of your sins,” Jon told his lawyer. “I would like to plead guilty.”

Jon pled guilty to third-degree murder, a crime that usually carries a sentence of 20–40 years in prison. Standing in court before the victim’s family, Jon asked for forgiveness. Then he apologized to the judge
for wasting the court’s time and taxpayers’ money. Jon also said that he would respect his sentence—no matter what it was.

“It didn’t matter that [the victim] was supposedly a drug dealer,” Jon explains. “At the end of the day, he was a young man made in the image of God who didn’t deserve to die.”

Miraculously, the judge sentenced Jon to 6–15 years in prison, with five years of probation.

A fresh start

In prison, he made the most of his time by taking classes and earning his GED. When Jon was released on parole, he stepped out into a world that is overwhelming for many former prisoners. He needed a place to live, a job, and a community of friends who would support him.

So Jon moved back in with his mother, who was living in a safer neighborhood. He found a local church, where he met a new circle of friends who welcomed him in and cared for him. He even managed to find
a job as a painter his first week out.

Today, Jon serves as the pastor of Chicago West Bible Church, a church he helped start. He’s married and has two children. “It’s been an amazing journey, and I praise God for that,” Jon says.

But it’s also been a tough one. Although he completed his sentence and is now a valuable contributor in his community, Jon’s criminal record follows him. With his record comes the legal restrictions on housing, employment, education, and more, called collateral consequences, that limit his opportunities to thrive. This is why Jon is passionate about second chances, and why he devotes some of his time to working with Prison Fellowship to mobilize churches to restore those impacted by crime and incarceration through direct ministry and advocacy.

Celebrating second chances

As part of that work, he and his church host a Second Chance Sunday every April—a special service designed to raise awareness about the stigma and barriers people with a criminal record face and inspire the church to be a place of welcome. This effort is part of Second Chance® Month, the
nationwide campaign led by Prison Fellowship to raise awareness about the barriers faced by men and women with a criminal record. Jon explains what the service is like:

I preach a message that’s related to this topic and this issue. We highlight different second chance ministries, organizations, and resources in our city and around the country that people in our church can get connected to. We allow our congregation to share their stories about how second chances impact them or their loved ones.

Jon says his church hosts this special service because “We believe that every man and woman, every individual, regardless of if they have a criminal record or not, has been created in God’s image and is worthy of dignity and respect and opportunity.”

And the annual observance of Second Chance Month, celebrated every April, is making an impact. “Second Chance Sundays have been huge for our church. It’s created a culture in which everyone feels free to truly embrace one another in Christ, as he designed us to be.”

Host your own Second Chance Sunday

Jon encourages pastors and church leaders to host their own Second Chance Sunday services. But you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Jon recommends that churches take advantage of Prison Fellowship’s Second Chance Sunday Church Toolkit, available online for free. “In this toolkit, there are sermon ideas, small group discussions, coloring books for children, all types of statistics and current data. I encourage you to sign up as soon as you can for that Second Chance Sunday Church Toolkit.”

By / Sep 21

These days it seems like we are all searching for ways to pursue justice and reconciliation. We know God calls us to “remember those in prison” (Heb. 13:3 NIV) and “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression” (Isa.1:17 ESV). Yet few churches have organized jail or prison ministries, and most evangelicals are uninvolved in pursuing justice reform

Why is that? The answer is complicated. Our justice system is exactly that—a system. It can be hard to figure out how to approach it. We may assume that, because of bureaucracy, prisons will be as difficult for us to enter as they are for prisoners to leave. We may also feel that prisoners are less deserving of our compassion than other people we might serve. 

However, God’s Word challenges us to work through those fears, challenges, and presuppositions to understand his heart for prisoners. So where do we begin? 

A free resource to help

For more than 40 years, Prison Fellowship® has been working to realize a more restorative justice system in this country, one that reflects the God-given value of each person. We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. And we want to share those lessons with the church. That’s why we created Outrageous Justice®. 

Developed by Prison Fellowship’s subject-matter experts, Outrageous Justice is a free small-group study that explores the criminal justice system through a biblical lens, current events, and personal stories. Outrageous Justice is designed to awaken Christians to the need for justice that restores, then activate them to respond. Participants are equipped and encouraged to care for those affected by crime and incarceration—victims, prisoners, returning citizens, and their families—and to advocate for justice reforms. 

More than 61,000 people have walked through the study. Ninety-nine percent of participants surveyed after using the curriculum reported increased awareness about criminal justice issues. The majority also reported taking action to advance criminal justice reform—like Aaron Merritt and Ashley Erickson. 

Taking action

Aaron and Ashley are members of Mercy Hill Church in Minnesota. Like many churches in the U.S., the church hasn’t been able to meet due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of Aaron’s pastors approached him about leading a small group to make good use of the time. Aaron, who has been volunteering inside a correctional facility for two years with Prison Fellowship, agreed and decided to use Outrageous Justice

Ashley joined the group. She says, “I haven’t encountered a lot of people that have been incarcerated, and so I wouldn’t know what it was like. I could have an idea, but it would probably be very wrong.” Hearing firsthand from people featured in the curriculum who have committed crimes gave her a new perspective. “Humanizing them was a really big thing for me, rather than how we see [them] portrayed in media.”

Aaron enjoyed the connection to the Scriptures. He adds, “I really liked—and I think a lot of people in our group really appreciated—how action-focused it was. . . . There were actual action steps . . . from just doing email advocacy to . . . actually going to the prisons.”

By the end of the study, Ashley and Aaron were both ready to take one of those steps. “Ashley felt . . . compelled to get more involved and saw a vision for herself,” Aaron recalls. Ashley provides parent coaching to families in her community, something Aaron knew was applicable to prison ministry. “When [Aaron] mentioned that that was a possibility . . . to do in the prison, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. For sure,’” Ashley says. She has now completed volunteer training and eagerly awaits the opportunity to work with parents once prisons in her state reopen to volunteers.

Aaron just completed the training to become a Prison Fellowship Justice Ambassador. Our team trains Justice Ambassadors to advocate for cultural change and legislative reforms that advance proportional punishment, constructive prison culture, and second chances. “[Now] I’m going to start setting up meetings with representatives on some of the criminal justice initiatives that Prison Fellowship is going to be working on,” he says.

Learn what you can do

Our goal is to help you, no matter where you’re starting from, determine your response to the biblical mandate to visit those in prison and pursue justice. 

Outrageous Justice will help you better understand the criminal justice system in America and why it matters to every one of us. It will equip you to advocate for justice that restores. Most importantly, it will invite you to speak up on behalf of those who can’t, bringing redemption and hope to the criminal justice system—and to our country.

Download your free copy of Outrageous Justice today and encourage others to do the same.