More Than Doing Time

Ministry to the Incarcerated ... by Carl Sonnichsen (from Issue #536)

by Carl Sonnichsen

It was back in 2002 when we moved from Labrador’s north coast to the central region of Happy Valley-Goose Bay to begin a new ministry.

Laura & Carl Sonnichsen

Laura & Carl Sonnichsen

We had, for the previous five years, been serving among 1200 residents of an Inuit community. Now we were living among 8,000 residents of varying cultural backgrounds including Inuit, Metis (NunatuKavut), Innu, Islanders, East Indian, and Filipino.

The challenge would be to find exactly where and how we would use the gifts and abilities God has given us to use for His glory.

Shortly after our move I was asked to fill in for someone at the local Correctional Centre to hold weekly chapel meetings. In the past I had been briefly introduced to ministry among the incarcerated, but with very minimal exposure. After my very first meeting I was convinced that this was to be one of my niches of outreach.

Fourteen years have passed since my first meeting with inmates at the Labrador Correctional Centre. Investing so many years into anything will bring one to question, “What have I accomplished?”

Moments of Impact

In thinking over the hundreds of meetings I’ve led, I can say that there were some very difficult moments, as well as some very hopeful ones. What I’d like to focus on in the next few paragraphs are those which have impacted me most, and those that have been more of a blessing to me than to the ones I was ministering to.

One evening I remember quite vividly. It had been a week when I had felt no real ambition to hold the meeting at all. But with a slight “inner tug” I put together some material and went.

There was nothing unusual that I noticed during our hour-long meeting, but what brought me nearly to tears was how the inmates responded to me shortly before being escorted out by the guards. Nearly all of the 15 inmates came to shake my hand and to thank me for taking the time to visit with them. God did not intend so much to use “me” that night, but rather to use the inmates to encourage and bless me!

Another venue of ministry I’ve been involved with over the years is a weekly radio broadcast that is aired over most of Labrador. Without getting much for responses from those who hear my broadcasts, I do wonder at times if what I share is falling on deaf ears. One evening, when again being escorted out of the Correctional Centre, one of the inmates who was mopping the front entry floor spoke out: “Hey Carl, I always listen to you on the radio. I like what you have to say.” Again, another moment God chose to bless me.

The usual scenario with many inmates is that I’ll see them during a three to four-month sentence, then they’ll be released, only to return to jail for crimes or breaches committed during their time out. Some guards have even been known to say, “See you again soon,” as the inmates finish their time and are released. I remember being let through the gate when a guard commented, “You’ll never get anywhere with these guys. They always come back.”

Scripture in their Thinking

Not too long ago a former inmate approached me outside the Post Office. I asked him how he was doing, and he spoke of how well he feels and that God has been working in his life. He then mentioned the positive impact on him over the years, as I came into the Correctional Centre and “shared the stories.” I thanked him for those words and told him how much I needed to hear that.

Recently a number of inmates have asked for more of a personal Bible study, something more tailored to them as individuals. So that’s what I have begun this spring. The number of men attending shrank a bit – as a few chatterers were weeded out – but it has been nothing short of productive as far as study and conversation go.

It’s been exciting to see the men returning to the study with Scripture verses embedded in their thinking, and God’s Word being lived out in their response to fellow inmates. Dare I say that a number of guards are noticing a difference?

Breathing Life

So, what have I accomplished? In all of the situations I encounter in serving the Lord, any and all of my meager attempts will not satisfy either myself or God if I’m not prayerfully allowing Him to breathe His life into all that I do.

Acts 17:24-25 reminds me of this: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”

I trust you have this same conclusion in all that you do for Him.

“… to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free …” (Luke 4:18b)

Several of our missionary men across Canada minister in correctional facilities on a regular basis.

In Prince Albert, NCEM ladies are involved, too. For several years a group of missionary ladies have assisted the chaplain with monthly Sunday chapel meetings at a women’s Correctional Centre – and sometimes a weekday Bible study.

Recently the chaplain repeated what one inmate said about our ladies’ ministry: “It’s what helps get me through the week.”

(from Northern Lights, issue #536)