An Inside Look at Prison Ministries
- Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Robert Robinson stood weeping while wearing handcuffs. But while his body was shackled, his heart was free.
Still a prisoner at the time, in October of 2003, Robinson received permission to attend the funeral of his stepson, who had died in a house fire. Having been born again while participating in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) program at Newton Correctional Facility in Iowa, Robinson addressed a funeral crowd that included his unsaved wife and mother as well as gang members with whom he used to deal drugs.
"I was able to get up and speak and give my testimony about my experience with Jesus," said Robinson, 25, who has since been released and will be spending his first Christmas outside prison in nearly five years. "I asked my family for forgiveness for what I had done. I had an alter call and 90 people at the funeral were saved. It was amazing to see, plus a comfort to know my son did not die in vain."
During his testimony, Robinson told of how he used drugs to gain acceptance among other gang members and of how prison life really is a cry for help.
"For me, there was an answer for that cry," he said, explaining how IFI provided a life purpose. "There is so much help for men who really want to change their lives. That's what the program is about."
Robinson paused, "A lot of men come to the program and leave it, for numerous reasons. Guys don't want people to know they have a heart. But when God began to change my heart, I began having new desires to get a new heart."
Robinson's testimony, and others like it, are spread throughout the country; men who follow the path from social troublemaker to redeemed helper. It is the story of a down-and-outer who found God behind bars and now helps others find Him on the outside.
It is the post-prison experience that has become the exciting new vision of Prison Fellowship, which is the parent organization of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative. As successful as IFI has been inside prison walls -- those who complete the program show much lower rates of recidivism -- the rubber-meets-the-road aspect of the program is what takes place once an inmate leaves the cellblock behind.
"We really believe the future of prison ministry is working with prisoners when they're released," said Mark Earley, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship USA. "What it looks like is local churches stepping up to the plate and saying they're willing to work with (integrating) inmates into their congregation."
Prison Fellowship currently offers a training program that helps churches assimilate former inmates into the flock.
"That can be done anywhere, in any community," Earley said. "We're finding more and more churches are becoming interested."
That's a change from the past, when churches were willing to send members into prisons to minister but were not excited about opening the doors at home, Earley said.
What churches are beginning to realize is that redeemed prisoners often have powerful messages of God's restoration, grace and forgiveness.
For Earley, that epiphany occurred in December of 2001 while studying the book of Exodus. Before then, the former state senator and attorney general of Virginia (1998-2001) respected prison ministry but wasn't sure if it was something in which he wanted to invest his life.
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