Prison ministry is rewarding endeavor

Published 4:20 am Monday, April 28, 2003

By By John Garrard
Guest Columnist
When approached by Editor James Crawford of the Atmore Advance about being one of the guest writers during the upcoming six weeks, I hesitated, and then asked "On what subject?" "Take your choice," was his reply…so, Mr. Editor, here goes.
So many of my friends, including my family, and indeed many of my Brothers in Christ at Fountain Correction Center ask "Mr. G., why do you "go to prison" and participate in the Atmore YMCA's Men in Action Fountain Bible Study Ministry?"
I have an answer ready and, dear readers, this is it: (1) Matthew 25:35-40 For I was hungered…thirsty…a stranger…naked…sick…I was in prison, and ye visited me…Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (2) Hebrews 13:3 Remember them that are in prison, as bound with them.
To me that is a commission or is it a command and, for almost eight years, I have been going out, first to the Fountain Chapel, then to the Honor Dorm 5 and, for over two years, the Faith Honor Community Dorm 7, the home of 225 men, up from 186 a few weeks ago.
We, Men in Action, tell our Brothers in Christ that it really is 229…don't forget Dennis, Eldred, Ray and me. The calling of these four names and maybe another one or two will be the one time, for I'm not much with naming names.
We will state that, in the beginning it was this, a former YMCA executive, a former Presbyterian minister, a neighbor down the street and a few others whose advice I heeded.
I will tell you that one Mr. Martin Webber got my attention when he was heading the local prison ministry with the New Life Foundation, now the We Care Program, located on Hwy 21 north, near I-65.
I admired his great Mennonite youth and hard work, and during the 1980s, I was a member of his Advisory Board, having to resign later due to a conflict with my profession and doing business with him, his family and his prison ministry.
I still admire his great faith. In 1964, he began a long and rewarding career as Chaplain of the Alabama Prisons, in fact 19 1/2 years. At one time, he devoted full time to the We Care Program in 1970. On January 12 of this year, he was recognized for 25 years of In-Prison Crusades. He continues to be a great personal Christian friend of mine.
At the time we were meeting in the Fountain Chapel, we had 35-40 members who met at various churches each third Saturday for breakfast, music and worship. But after the breakfasts were stopped, those who agreed to continue teaching Bible Classes dwindled for various reasons until we are now four.
Men in Action is dedicated to continuing this ministry. Men in Action is patterned after Colorado Coach Bill McCarty's Promise Keepers that has since 1990 grown from less than one hundred to three and a half million followers.
We have recently finished these books of the bible: Ephesians, Hebrews, Romans, John I, II, III and now were are in 1st Corinthians. The men want us to "tackle" Revelations!! Time will tell.
In addition to teaching, there is some mentoring before and after Sunday classes and we participate in the Family Dinners twice a year. We also participate in gifts for the men at Christmas, made great additions to the library with books, newspapers, etc. and music tapes, upgraded the Fountain Chapel with great improvements, acquired much computer equipment given to us from various businesses, individuals and schools as well as textbooks given to us by JDCC and just this week, plants, seeds and fertilizer for three dorm outside areas were presented by the four teachers.
The process of helping those deserving and rehabilitated Brothers get an early release is not as great as we would like it to be, but there have been some successes in this area of our ministry. We are proud to tell you that we have in a number of instances, been an influence in many in our classes (varying from 35-50 each quarter) of helping them to find our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in prison. This is our greatest joy and makes all the disappointments worth while.
Many of our Brothers, (notice we do not call them those other names) are the products of broken homes, poverty, dropping out of school, family abuse, abandonment, lack of discipline and in to many instances absence of a father influence.
The national average of those in prison due to dropping out of school is 75-80 percent. Please take a note of this Escambia County citizens. Are you aware that we have more than 9,400 children and many, many sad stories?
One of my favorite stories happened less than two years ago when Dennis and I went out to the chapel to see one of our class members who was 59 1/2 years old and had never been associated with a church, confirmed into the Episcopal Church by the Bishop who came up from Mobile.
What a great Christian he is today, indeed a new creation in Jesus Christ. He has been in prison more than 20 years, and just recently, I am sorry to say was "set off" another five years, but at that time, he can have another hearing before the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. Another three have been "set off" three years, with a hearing coming up on April 30 and June 9. Please pray for them.
I want to give you an example that happened about two years ago when I was tutoring at ECHS, trying to assist them in passing the exit exam and get their diploma, and learned that at least one was threatening to drop out.
On Sunday, I asked my class of about 40 to write a little note entitled "Why you should stay in School" that I could read to the students. Those were very powerful messages, very explicit and frightening. Unfortunately, four did drop out before the tutoring ended and it devastated me. I urged them to get their GED.
Recently I asked my Brothers to write a little note for suggestions for our new Governor. About 30 responded. I deleted their names and mailed them in on the following Monday. I have not heard back, but I remain hopeful.
We wanted you to know in the Citywide Prayer Meetings that started in September each Tuesday from 6-6:30 p.m. , we remember and pray for this segment of our society "just north of Atmore." Please remember the great economic boost to Atmore's economy…jobs, payrolls, opportunities, etc.
Finally my brethren, I want to tell you that this ministry at Fountain has been very challenging to the Men in Action. It has made our faith stronger and hopefully we are better people now that when we began this ministry.
We are teaching our Brothers who have grown up in church, most of them have not, but they are desperately trying to become rehabilitated and ready to go home, get a job, be associated with a church and rejoin or begin their families.
In so many case, these are "good men" but somewhere alone the way, usually in their teen years, something like parental neglect, abandonment, a divorce or Mother and Father, a spouse divorce, abuse – oh folks, a host of bad things – made them commit a crime of some kind and they wound up in prison for periods of time for a few years to life.
The ones we have recommended have proven records of being rehabilitated, truly are sorry for their mistakes, found God in prison, have served a certain percentage of their sentences and could be released early and go home to their communities and become good citizens. Yes, we know that some of them do return again.
Remember, "I was in prison and ye visited me." God bless each and every one of you and members of your families and may God help the war come to an end soon. Amen!

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