NCEM in Prison Ministry
Mark Dana tells about “John,” a fellow from a northern Native community he met at the correctional centre. John professed faith in Christ and met regularly with Mark during his incarceration. They developed a friendship that has continued after John’s release and return home. John is involved in his church, and has invited the Danas up for visits. “It’s opened many doors for ministry in the Cree community,” says Mark.
We may call it NCEM “prison” ministry but, like this story, it’s really not just about what takes place behind the walls. It’s also about ministry after release, ministry to families, to victims, to prison staff … it’s about ministry to people!
Why Go “Inside”?
“It’s a window of opportunity for those who have been caught in the throes of addiction and hopelessness,” answers Mark. “The Holy Spirit really works … people’s ears seem more attentive because they are looking for change.
“It’s incarnational ministry,” he adds. “When Jesus served on earth, He was accessible. His ministry included the most rejected and forgotten of society. Some have no visits from family or friends. God can use this act of compassion to change lives.”
The inmates do appreciate it. Recently Mark arranged for NCEMer Noriko Suzuki to visit some inmates she had known as boys. “I knew their parents and grandparents well,” says Noriko. “I was overwhelmed with grief to learn that they had been involved in tragic crimes.” Noriko brought old photos of these fellows as gifts. “[He] was more than happy and just kept repeating, ‘Thank you!’ ” Noriko says. “He thanked me … he thanked our pilot … he thanked Mark.”
Why go “inside”? “They need to hear the Good News,” says Gilbert Bekkatla, who has been visiting prisoners regularly in Prince Albert since the early 1990s, when he’s not up north on a ministry trip. Working among his own Dene people, he knows their resistance to the Gospel. In prison he finds men who appreciate a visit, who seem open to change. “I believe they can get saved, be changed, and even do jail ministry themselves someday,” states Gilbert.
Like Mark, Gilbert knows that ministry inside may just be the start. Several years ago he visited a young prisoner who’d requested that Gilbert visit his family up north. When Gilbert did so, he received a cold welcome from the parents who were discouraging their son from talking to evangelicals. Now Gilbert says this fellow’s parents have begun welcoming him warmly, even asking him to visit their other grown kids!
Families & Further
Carl Sonnichsen is probably like a number of our missionaries who didn’t plan on prison ministry. Carl says he was initially asked to fill in at the prison for a local church leader. “We had just moved from the Labrador Coast to Goose Bay, and I realized this was a terrific opportunity to maintain contact and influence with men and families from the Coast,” he says. “Since then several ministry contacts have involved entire families. Other instances I’ve been asked to inform inmates of family tragedies. As much as I dislike this role, it has been a spring board for ministering to these particular inmates in further ways.”
At a thrift store associate missionary Laureen Pattison works with prisoners on day passes. “This gives them work experience, helping prepare for the time they are released,” says Laureen, who has shared conversations about family and faith, especially with one prisoner who has been there several years. Laureen also connects with women prisoners who come to the store for clothes upon release.
Inside the walls, there’s a wide variety of outreaches: chapel services, group sharing sessions, one-on-one visits in low, medium and high security prisons, and in facilities for youth and women. Some NCEMers, like Mark Dana and Tim Gradin, contribute significant time inside. Most of us fit into the “volunteer” category. That’s important, too, says Mark. “Volunteers … represent community in an institution. They are a needed bridge.”
It’s commonly understood that prisons are necessary to protect society from violent criminals. Perhaps less understood is that taking a criminal out of the community does not necessarily lead to rehabilitation. If crime is a fundamental disrespect for other people, then the rehabilitation process must involve the community where the disrespect started, says M2/W2 prison ministry BC director, Wayne Northey, in a recent article (canadianchristianity.com).
Northey refers to the Native community practice of sending wrongdoers away from the village, and to the New Testament practice of discipline in Matthew 18. Both processes expel the wrongdoer for a time, but with the ultimate goal of restoration. “Unless there is a receiving community, prisoners who complete their sentences often quickly return to alcohol and crime,” he says.
So our missionaries involved seek to exemplify Christ’s forgiveness, present His life-changing power, and represent community.
Brought to our Knees
We’ve learned that it all must be done in God’s power. Ken Mahood tells of his visits to a prison work camp in north-central Saskatchewan a few years ago, bringing Christian literature, and sometimes others along to visit, sing or preach.
“The first time I went, no one would even talk to me!” Ken remembers. “There was a very strong feeling of, ‘You don’t belong here.’ It was a bad experience, but it brought me to my knees to do a lot of praying before I went back. And what a change when I did! I never got beyond the front porch. So many guys came to talk, look through the literature, and ask questions. I think it was four hours of good sharing and talking! The lesson I learned was you’d better be ‘prayed up’ before you go walking in there.”
What about the Victims?
Mark Dana’s wife, Ruth Anna, tells about being invited to take part as a volunteer in a prison ministry. “My biggest argument (for previously not going),” she says, “had always been that if I reached out to the perpetrators, I would be betraying the victims.”
Ruth Anna says her heart reaches out to victims and their hurt. “I’ve also heard their anger,” she adds. “It comes in statements we’ve all heard, like, ‘Lock ’em up and throw away the key.’ But the longer that anger lives in the heart, the more destructive it becomes, even carrying on to the next generations. God’s Word tells us to forgive (Matt. 6:14,15), and Jesus Christ is our example of forgiveness.
“So how did I feel surrounded by inmates who had committed reprehensible deeds? God took away my fears and I saw only people with real needs who were asking God to help them. I felt that I had come full circle — because the needs of forgiving and forgiveness are universal.”
We wouldn’t be honest if we didn’t admit to disappointments. Ken Mahood tells of a fellow he got to know at the prison work camp. “He really wanted to follow the Lord. I spent quite a lot of time with him and, when he got out, even arranged for him to stay with us in La Ronge for a while. He got a job. Then one day my bike was gone, and he was gone. Later I learned that he was back in jail.”
Ken remembers another fellow at the prison camp with a “real attitude” towards Christians — always plenty of negative comments towards Ken. One time he asked Ken to take his pop can collection to the city for a refund and buy him a fishing rod. Ken did it as an act of kindness, and remembers having a good talk with the fellow. “I remember him saying he was getting out and he would never come back again,” recalls Ken. “Later that fall I heard that he and two others drowned up north when their canoe got swamped while hunting. I don’t know if he ever made a decision for the Lord.”
Closed & Open Hearts
Gilbert Bekkatla tells of dealing with men who feel guilty and hopeless but, on the other hand, with men who won’t take responsibility for their actions. It’s difficult also, he says, to see older men accept prison life as normal and lose their desire to change. Family brokenness is ever present. Gilbert knows prisoners who don’t want their children coming to visit them because it just makes it harder when it’s time to say goodbye.
Tim Gradin says that gangs are an increasing factor in prisons now, with inmates’ loyalties and fears complicating ministry. There have always been interruptions to visits because of “lock-downs” from violence or other reasons.
There are inmates who act interested, but have other motives. Pat Elford noticed that especially when bringing in mixed (guy/gal) groups of Key-Way-Tin Bible Institute students (the jail also had a mixed population). Andrew Siebert was on one of those teams. He remembers inmates just wanting to argue. But, he says, among them were inmates asking sincere questions. Pat remembers corresponding with a gal from prison who showed interest in coming to KBI, but never made it. “I sensed her heart was after God.”
Doing It In Hope
Yes, there are disappointments, but we do it in hope, says Blaine Witherow. Blaine tells of a fellow he visited regularly back in the mid-1980s. With no communication for almost 25 years, Blaine got a phone call from him. “He just called to say that he remembered me and wanted to know how I was doing,” says Blaine. “Although he listened to the Gospel back then, he is still following Native traditional religion. But, if he can remember me all these years, surely the Word is still at work.”
Our Tribal Trails TV ministry often gets calls and letters from those in jail, and from their families. A recent call from a released prisoner stands out. He told of feeling rejected by Christians because of his criminal record. “Everywhere I turn in the Christian environment, I face walls,” he said.
He said that during his jail time he studied the Bible thoroughly, was saved, and even led others to Christ. Now he doesn’t have Christian friends to hang out with — it’s just unsaved people who accept him. He wants to be in ministry, but doesn’t think a Bible school or seminary would take him. He kept saying, “I’m surprised you guys will actually talk with me.”
Revenge to Compassion
Forgiveness is a big part of it, says NCEMer Venus Cote. “I enjoy prison ministry very much, but I wouldn’t if it wasn’t for forgiveness. I had to forgive a man who took my mother’s life.”
“I’ve come from wanting revenge to having a compassionate heart towards these people,” she says. “To many they are a written-off group. If I could inspire or encourage just one soul and offer hope in Christ, it is worth it.
“I shared in a New Brunswick prison and told them about forgiveness. ‘God is able,’ I told them. ‘Look how far I’ve come.’ Well, an inmate came barreling down the aisle and I had no idea what he was going to do! I just stood and watched, but not afraid. He came right up to me and hugged me and said, ‘Thank you! Thank you so much. That’s what I really needed to hear!’
“To me, that is worth the effort. They need the Lord just as much as anyone.”
Adapted from our Northern Lights magazine (Issue #508). Note: some of the locations and involvements of our missionaries may have changed since the original publishing of this article.