(Originally Published 3/30/08)
My second year of prison ministry occurred during my last year at Wesley Biblical Seminary, http://www.wbs.edu/ ,2003-2004. On Monday nights, I boarded a bus and was driven to a county jail. If my memory serves me right, I believe it was the Rankin County Jail outside Jackson, MS. With me was Seminary Professor Matt Friedeman ( http://www.evangelismtoday.blogspot.com/ ) seminary students Bill Coppedge (http://coppedgeafrica.blogspot.com/ ), Jeff and Andrea Wolheter ( http://jawolheter.blogspot.com/ ), Troy Gentry ( http://disciplesofallnations.blogspot.com/ ),Matt Johnson, Bill Blair, Michael Smith, Josh Cougle and Stuart Kellog. Others from Dr. Friedeman's church joined us as well. Our trip to the jail took about one half an hour. We did not waste the time socializing. We sang hymns and prayed part of the way and reported on what happened to each other on the way back.
This jail facility is different from what was in my hometown. This is a massive security building where we were searched and led through several security doors. The prison population is divided into several sizable Cell Blocks. Entering these Cell Blocks, one comes upon a vast space where the prisoners are free to roam outside their cells. These blocks contain two floors of cells. Only one floor at a time was let out to meet us, so when I preached, I spoke loudly, so those locked upstairs could hear me. ( Often they would respond from their cells to what I was saying.) Often I preached to thirty or forty men at a time. I was able to mingle freely among them.
Dr. Friedeman taught us not to spend the whole hour preaching to them. These men may be glad to hear us, yet they don't want to be forced to sit and listen to someone speak for a whole hour. One person violated that rule. He was a great speaker and at first the men responded well to him. But as time went on, they became annoyed and shut him out for the rest of the time. We mixed preaching with worship (I was terrible at this.) [About the only songs the prisoners knew was "Amazing Grace" and "Jesus Calling on the Mainline."] , sharing, and prayer. We ministered usually two to a cell block, sometimes both of us preached. I preached an average of just twenty minutes. Then while one led worship, the other would minister to those locked in their cells. We encouraged the men to pray in public and encouraged those who showed evidence of growth to step out and be ministers themselves.
This was my first experience giving weekly sermons. I wanted to put as much care into these sermons as I would if I was speaking in front of a Church. This experience was helpful later when I became a pastor.
Beyond that, this experience produced permanent spiritual changes in my life. During my first three years at seminary, I was not involved in any sort of ministry. At the beginning of my fourth year, I was a total mess spiritually. At first, when I began going out Monday nights to the jail, I would be lifted up emotionally and spiritually for a day or two. Then I would return to my despondent state. I soon realized that those in jail were caught in a cycle of negative thinking; they believed that there was no deliverance for themselves. They needed to hear how not only the Gospel saves them, but how the Gospel transforms them through the working of the Holy Spirit. I had to search the scriptures for messages about breaking this cycle of negative thinking. As I developed these messages and preached them, the Holy spirit worked in me to transform my own mind and strengthen my own spirit. Instead of being uplifted for just a day or two, I was permanently changed and able to live the Christian life better than before. This has been four years ago and still what God worked in me in those days has sustained me to this day, even during this period of my life, which is more a valley than a mountain peak right now. Toward the end of that year, I ended up preaching to the same Cell Block. That gave me a chance to see a group of men mature in their faith. One told me he had learned how to leave the realm of negativity that Satan kept him bound in. I saw that one hour a week, every week, we could work through the Holy Spirit to bring transformation to men in despair.
(Continued in Part Three.)