"Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering." Hebrews 13:3
The Prison Ministry is an outreach to inmates to give them hope through the word of God and works in collaboration with the Touch of Love/New Beginnings Prison Ministries.
Touch of Love/New Beginnings
Founded in 1988 by Michael Ashley, Touch of Love (T.O.L.) is a prison ministry outreach, corporately known as New Beginnings Better Living Center, Inc. (N.B.B.L.C.) whose mission is to reach those who are or have been incarcerated and in need of a fresh start.
Our primary objective is to administer a Christ-centered program to prison inmates in the State of California and throughout the United States, which will provide a structured avenue through which inmates and parolees and their families can receive specialized services of support, healing and rejuvenation.
We find our purpose and mission in Isaiah 61:1-3 which reads:
"(1) The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; (2) to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; (3) to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory."
"Setting the captive free."
Theology of Prison Ministry Before His ascension, Jesus commanded His followers to “Go into the entire world and preach the gospel to every creature.” Inmates are part of the creatures that equally need the good news. Although they have sinned; Jesus loves them and will forgive them of their sins and heal them from all the effects of sin in their lives. The gospel is the source of hope to the hopeless, the source of courage to the despondent and the source of strength to the weak and defeated. Jesus pronounces a special blessing to the poor in spirit because the kingdom of God is theirs. I believe that inmates, regardless of the crimes they might have committed, fit very well in the category of the poor. Jesus calls them the blessed mainly because they are the rich soil for the gospel. At a point when a person has lost everything, his heart is ready to receive the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. At this desperate moment, Jesus becomes the only source of hope, future, identity and the only reason for living. While the population of prisons is mainly composed of men and women who have violated the law, they still have rights to express their spirituality. In order for the jails to provide inmates with an opportunity to express their spirituality, the jail administration has incorporated spiritual activities within the Inmates Programs Unit. Since the majority of jail personnel are law enforcement trained, they may not adequately provide spiritual programs. That is why chaplains have been invited to provide religious services on a regular basis. Though the term prison ministry is not found in scriptures, the Bible has numerous incidents where God has applied the prison ministry principles in dealing with humanity in the plan of salvation. God applied principles of prison ministry in dealing with the fall of man and the great controversy between good and evil. In the book of Genesis, the Bible talks about the violation of the law of God by the first human parents in the Garden of Eden. This violation of God’s law is called sin. The Bible defines sin as, “the transgression of the law” , a failure to act by anyone “who knows the good he ought to do and does not do it” and any deviation from the known will of God. Indeed, this biblical definition of sin fits very well in defining what most of those who are incarcerated have done to the law of the land. They have violated the law and failed to conduct themselves in accordance within the knowledge of good. They have deviated from the will of the State and its citizens. Isolating violators of the law from the society, sentencing them for a time period, have them work as restitution and withholding some of their privileges is biblical. After violating God’s law, Adam and Eve and the serpent had to be sentenced as recorded in Genesis 2:13-19. God told the serpent, “you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life.” To the woman the sentence was “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children, your desire shall be for your husband and shall rule over you.” Adam’s sentence included the cursing of the ground, hard labor, cursing of vegetation and a change of diet as recorded in Genesis 2: 17-19. The sentence of each offender was determined by the gravity of the crime committed. After passing judgment, God isolated Adam and Eve from their original home and community and sent them out to serve their sentences and did not allow them to return to the Garden of Eden again. They lost their privilege to the tree of life because an angel of God guarded the tree “with a flaming sword which turned every way” states the Bible. The role of the angel that guarded Adam and Eve from having access to the tree of life matches well with the duty of the deputies, probation officers and all those who are involved in the enforcement of law and order. Adam and Eve did not and will not return to their original home and have access to the tree of life again until in new earth according to Revelation 21 and 22. The human generation is still serving this sentence since they all became sinners by inheritance as indicated in 1 Corinthians 15:21- 24: For since by man came death, by man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order, Christ the first fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts to an end to all rule and all authority and power. In Romans 5:12 the Bible says, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned”. In this painful story of the fall of man as recorded in the book of Genesis, We can see God applying the principles of Prison Ministry. God did not leave Adam and Eve to walk alone in the prison cell of sin. God provided them with their basic physical needs. In Genesis 2:21, the Bible says, “the Lord God made tunics of skin, and clothed them.” He also provided them with emotional and spiritual support by giving them hope and self esteem. He assured them that one day the serpent that deceived them would have his head “bruised” by Jesus Christ on the cross. This is prison ministry proper. “In the sight of God, there is no difference between inmates and those who are not in jail. All have sinned and they need God’s mercy. An inmate who makes a life-changing decision for Christ is no different from any person who has made that decision to follow the will of God.” The biblical story of Cain is another typical example of God’s usage of prison ministry principles. In this story, we see the application of justice accompanied by the acts of kindness and mercy. Motivated by pride, greed, excessive desire for power, dominance and control, Cain murdered his biological brother and became the first murderer in the history of humanity. This excessive quest for power and control is the root cause of many crimes that have been committed by inmates. Such criminal acts such as rape, child and spousal abuse, physical and sexual abuse, gang affiliation and drug abuse are motivated by unregulated thirst for dominance and control. In Genesis 4: 8, Cain kills his brother Abel and hides him in the field hoping to hide the evidence. What he does not realize is that the omnipresent God is watching and sees all what he is doing. In verse 9, Cain pleads innocent by claiming his ignorance of the whereabouts of his brother. In this verse God is portrayed as the Judge, Prosecutor and Witness. Because the evidence was over whelming, even without pleading guilty, the sentence is given. “So now you are cursed from the earth which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hands. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you be on the earth.” Cain understood the gravity of his sentence even though it did not include incarceration and isolation. Cain understood that he was not going to serve his sentence in his neighborhood and locality. He had to serve his sentence in detention, isolated from his parents and from the face of God. Cain’s fear of revenge from his family for the crime he had committed is typical of most inmates. The feeling of guilt, fear and rejection from family members and the community weighs heavily on many inmates. If these feelings are not addressed properly, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation may result. It is in such situations that the ministry of the chaplain is mostly needed and appreciated by the inmates and the law enforcement officers. At this time, the inmates need someone who will tell them that even though they have lost their families, friends and possessions, there is still someone who loves and cares for them, and that is Jesus. Just as He promised to protect Cain from all harm and danger in spite of him being a criminal, God will never abandon them. Let them know that, “There is hope in your future, says the Lord.” The experience of the prophet Jonah in the belly of the fish for three days is another biblical example of prison ministry. Jonah was sentenced for three days in a belly of a whale for being disobedient to divine orders. For three days Jonah was locked in an isolation cell, away from his community and family. Like many prisoners, Jonah felt dejected, rejected, forsaken, and hopeless and without a future because of the crime he had committed against God. Being in the belly of a fish was a death sentence to Jonah but little did he realize that he was not alone. God was with him through out his prison time. When he thought that this was the end of his life, God was actually making a bold preacher of righteousness out of him. Jonah did not know that he would eventually lead all the inhabitants of the city of Nineveh into repentance. The inmates need to know that being in jail is not the end of their lives. They need to know that God is molding them to be of better service to His vineyard through prison experiences. Even though it is not God who put them in jail, He is using the jail environment as a tool to smoothen some of the rough edges of their lives so that they can become responsible citizens. Jonah prayed a prayer of confession, praise, dedication and commitment while in the belly of the fish and the Lord heard him. God responded to Jonah’s prayer by giving him a second chance and commanded the fish to vomit him on the dry land. The inmates need to hear about the God of second chances and the God who listens and acts upon prayers of fugitives. Jonah said, “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer went up to you, into your holy temple.” When the inmates feel like all hope is gone, they need someone who will encourage them to pray to the Lord and assure them that their prayers go into the holy temple of God. Indeed some of them may not get the opportunity to return to their original occupations, community and family settings, yet where ever they are they can influence many lives positively as long as God allows them to live. Inmates have a tendency of making deals, promises and vows to God while they are in jail. In my experience as a Correctional Chaplain I have realized that inmates make such promises as, “if you get me out of jail I will be a law-abiding citizen, I will treat people with respect, I will not use drugs, I will go to church” etc. However, when they get released and return to a normal life, they forget about those vows and promises they made before God. No wonder why most of those prisoners end up committing worse crimes upon their release and thus becoming professional prisoners. The prayer of Jonah in verse 9 of Chapter 2 should serve as a reminder that vows need to be paid in full. In the introduction of His earthly ministry, Jesus identified Himself as the one who had come to “to proclaim liberty to the captives…” Chaplains are commissioned to continue spreading the gospel of Jesus which includes the setting of captives free. Isaiah, talking about the ministry of Jesus, says, “That you may say to the prisoners, go forth…” and “the opening of the prison to those who are bound…” Ministering to those who are in jail is not an option but a divine calling. The New Testament church was involved in the prison ministry. The Bible suggests that the early Christian church members considered praying for prisoners as their duty and ministry. When King Herod falsely imprisoned Peter so as to gain popularity with the Jewish leaders, the Bible records that the church members gathered in closed doors and constantly prayed for Peter the inmate. God honored their ministry by sending His angel into the prison to set the apostle Peter free. There is divine power in the prison ministry. When men and women gather together in praying and providing spiritual services to those who are in jail, God’s angels visit the inmates in a unique way and many lives are transformed, sins are confessed, broken relationships are renewed and many are saved into the kingdom of God. Inmates may not be miraculously released like Peter, but through the ministry of the chaplains, inmates will have the peace of mind during their legal battles and those who are already sentenced will understand that no matter what they are facing, others have faced the same situation, and gotten through it. They will also get through it. They will endeavor to make out of this experience something that is of benefit to them and to others. In order to minister to inmates, one must be willing to physically visit the prisoners. While many religious organizations have invested millions of dollars in prison ministry literature, DVDs, videos, these noble programs should not replace person to person encounter with inmates. Our Lord regards visiting those who are in prison so highly that we are told in Matthew 25:40 that it is the same as if one had visited Jesus Himself. Jesus puts the same emphasis in prison visitations as he does with feeding the hungry, clothing the needy, and visiting the sick. Chaplains are called to visit prisoners to bring the gospel to men and women behind the walls of a big penitentiary or prison.” Jesus says that those who are involved in prison ministry will be considered as good and faithful servants because when He was in prison they visited Him . Jesus identifies Himself with those who are suffering in pain even though there are reaping the results of their insubordination and elicit choices. By associating with sinners, He does not condone their sinful propensities but through His spirit He is urging and empowering them to be victorious. Jesus suffers with prisoners and as Chaplains visit them, they are actually visiting Jesus. The Psalmist urges God to “bring my soul out of prison that I may praise your name…” In the last moments of his ministry, Paul thanked the household of Onesiphorus for visiting him while he was in chains and he describes their visits as refreshing to him. Concluding moral directions, the writer of the book of Hebrews urges Christians to, “Remember the prisoners as if chained with them…” The chaplaincy in prison cannot be over emphasized. Men and women who are in prison need hope, comfort, assurance, and peace of mind, which is only found from the word and from the messengers of God. Through the words of the prophet Isaiah, God commissioned His ministers of righteousness to take the light to those who are behind bars. “ Thus says God the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it, and spirit to those who walk on it: I the Lord, have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the gentiles, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house.” God has promised to hold the hands of those who are involved in spreading the good news of hope to prisoners. By holding their hands, God claims them as His friends and co-workers and promises to support them with His life giving miracles. Even though they may not be released immediately upon receiving salvation from God, they will experience victory and freedom from those illicit behaviors, which landed them in jail. Upon completing their sentencing, their eyes will be opened and focused toward a redemptive course.
Themba M. Mzizi, Ph.D.
SDA Felowship of Rancho Cucamonga