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How to Do Prison Ministry

Church Support Services recently interviewed Gladys Eddy-Lee about her work with a coordinated prison ministry in the San Diego area. She is a veteran participant and leader in this ministry and has a passion for sharing hope with men, women and teens who find themselves behind bars.

Editor – Gladys, it was a privilege to meet you recently when I came to your church in the San Diego area. I specifically came to learn about your church’s involvement with prison ministries.

Gladys – Our primary focus in prison ministry is to offer an SDA worship service (on Sabbaths when possible), to Adventist inmates, and those who come from Adventist families. We also welcome those who have an interest in what we teach.

Editor – So it’s like a mini church service, or a Bible study group?

Gladys – The format differs depending on who the speaker is for that day. Preachers and evangelists usually prefer a sermon format; Bible study teachers usually follow a study group style. To the extent possible under the time constraints, we try to pattern our meetings after the format of our SDA congregations and include music where possible. One-on-one counseling is frequently needed, often without advance notification!

Editor – So how many people are involved?

Gladys – The Adventist team currently consists of 18 members from five San Diego area churches (South Bay, Maranatha, San Diego Central (Poway), Valley Center, and 31st Street). Current team members hail from seven different countries, and besides English are fluent in three other languages. Their qualifications include advanced degrees in theology, health sciences, substance abuse counseling, law/political science, business. This ideal situation has happened gradually over more than 20 years. At the present time we have one meeting each week on each of six yards at Donovan state prison, and the majority of our team members have made a serious commitment to be there consistently. We almost never cancel a meeting due to insufficient teachers.

Editor – Wow, that’s impressive and represents is a huge time commitment! Every week you have a presence in six yards at Donovan State Prison. For those who may not know, explain what a “yard” is.

Gladys – Typical of most modern prisons in California, Donovan State Prison is divided into six yards, called “facilities.” Each of them is separately fenced off from all the others. Inmates are assigned to a facility based on several factors, such as the nature and severity of their crime, how much time remains on their sentence, how well they have behaved since being incarcerated, whether they need to be protected from other inmates, their medical needs, etc. With extremely rare exceptions, an inmate may not go to another yard that he is not assigned to.

Editor – Can you share a story or two about how someone has been blessed by the team’s efforts and faithful work?

Gladys – This happened many years ago, but illustrates one of the realities of prison ministry—that volunteers may not always be able to use traditional avenues to reach hearts and minds for Jesus. When I was acting as yard pastor on the Minimum Security yard and teaching music as part of my efforts there, some of the choir members asked if they could do a rap number for the Sunday evening worship hour. I asked them to demonstrate what they were proposing, which consisted of a very devout Christian African-American inmate rapping Genesis chapter 1, accompanied by a young Latino on the electronic keyboard, with appropriate rhythm settings. The rap was done so well I consented to adding it to the service. Word quickly spread on the yard, and that evening the chapel was packed with inmates we never saw attending services before, just so they could hear the rap.

One of the most astounding experiences I’ve had involved an inmate I’ll call GW. When we met GW was in his late 40’s, and had been convicted of killing his abusive stepfather, at age 16. He had no parole date, and had had many difficult experiences during his long incarceration, including having a leg shot off during a prison riot. When we first met, we discovered him to be a very devout SDA who was also battling serious health problems (active AIDS, cancer, diabetes, and other challenges). A year or so later he was moved from the prison yard to the prison infirmary, where after 1-2 years of being there he was released on a compassionate commutation of sentence—which is a merciful release occasionally granted to inmates who are expected to pass away within 30 days.

While GW was in the infirmary numerous members of our prison ministry team visited him several times and furnished him with literature, shared a communion service, and had a group of our elders and pastor anoint him and pray over him. When he was finally allowed to go home to Arizona where his family resided, instead of dying, his health improved. He became active in a local AIDS support group, met a lady who was also HIV positive and they got married. His life had many difficulties, but he was never a quitter. Eventually deciding he wanted a career as a long distance truck driver, he persuaded a truck driving school to accept him for training, passed all tests, and the last we heard was driving big rigs all over the United States.

Editor – What an amazing story, which is but one among many, I’m sure! God has blessed your efforts, and I think it would be a shame for all of that hard-earned wisdom to just remain there in San Diego. If a church has a handful of members who want to start ministering to prisoners in a local jail or prison, can you offer them some tips on how to best get started?

Gladys – Prison ministry is a unique calling, and must come from the Lord! Thus, urgent prayer is essential before taking any other steps. If the answer from the Lord is “yes,” take inventory of what you believe you can offer—talents, training, experience, i.e., what would you be able to do in an incarcerated setting? Do you have a background of being arrested/convicted/incarcerated that may affect your ability to be cleared to enter an institution? How much time can you make available for this ministry (once/week, once/month, other)?

Consider whether you would like to carry out your ministry as part of your church body (a department of your home church) or whether you plan to operate as an independent ministry, either your own or affiliated with another independent ministry. In general I favor carrying out ministry within the home church organization. Contact your local conference office to see what resources they offer to help you get started.

As far as possible, I recommend that there be at least two volunteers who plan to minister together, rather than one working solo, especially if the parties are new to the work. Contact locked facilities within a reasonable travel distance, which may include city or county jails, work camps or honor camps, work furlough centers, state prisons, federal prisons, immigration facilities. Ask for the staff chaplain or volunteer coordinator and see what the needs are, explaining what you would like to offer.

Although my experience is mostly limited to the San Diego area, if there is any way I could help, you may contact me.

Editor – These are useful tips. And the prisons that you work with in San Diego are blessed to have you and your team working in their facilities. Thank you for sharing your ministry with us and if anyone wishes to contact you they can send a request to us and will get them connected with you.

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About Gladys Eddy-Lee and Rich DuBose

Gladys Eddy-Lee

leads out with a prison ministry initiative in San Diego, California.

Rich DuBose

is director of Church Support Services for the Pacific Union Conference

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