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Two days a week I enter a nearby state prison.
I pass through a metal detector, three sets of electric gates, and the interior chain-link and razor-wire fence. I watch as the inmates emerge from their dorms after the morning head count, staying single-file between painted lines.
Medically able inmates head to jobs in the laundry, kitchen, or doing prison maintenance. Some are assigned vocational or educational classes, substance abuse, or behavioral programs about parenting or anger management.
And then there are the chapel programs.
Prisoners file into the chapel where Promise Keepers praise music plays in the background. They are here to watch this week’s session of Stepping Up, a 10-week video series on courageous biblical manhood. The video is produced by FamilyLife, a ministry of Cru.
As the video ends, the men break up into discussion groups. Sometimes there are 50 men present, sometimes 20, but those who come are riveted to the men on screen, talking about what it means to be a good father and husband, and a godly leader.
Prison isn’t a safe place for men to be vulnerable. Inmates keep their guard up. Trust comes slowly, especially for those inside for the first time. And yet our discussions are characterized by men sharing stories of painful lives and challenging backgrounds. Many of the concepts communicated in Stepping Up are new to them, but they resonate immediately.
“I thought I’d been a good father because I provided financially,” one inmate says. “These videos have shown me just how wrong I was. Now I know how to change that with my 17-year-old daughter, if it’s not too late.”
Session Four features a Christian inmate who found a similar video in his prison’s library. He hosted showings of it. Over a 10-year period, God used him to touch the lives of hundreds of inmates, changing the atmosphere of a whole prison.
After watching that story, a small, wiry tattooed inmate said, “I’ve always heard about a relationship with Christ, but I’ve never known how to start that.” Two spiritually mature inmates tell him how, before helping him decide to start that relationship there and then.
A young inmate, days away from completing his term, asks, “Where can I order this course? I want to start showing this to other men in the church I’ll be involved in.”
“I can actually thank God for prison,” says another inmate. “If I weren’t in here, I never would have gotten involved in programs like this, and they’ve changed my life.”
In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “I was in prison, and you came to visit Me’ . . . whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me.”
Author and speaker Dennis Rainey, who hosts the Stepping Up videos, was told by a former prisoner, “Inmates are the lepers of our day. They feel devalued, they feel forgotten, they feel shunned.”
One of the inmates I know recently told me, “For those of us without family and friends nearby, you coming in here regularly is a tangible expression of God’s love to us.”
That’s why time inside my local prison has become the highlight of my week.
I tend to avoid things that are awkward or uncomfortable, and there are some challenging topics for the Church in America today. Then I went to Creating Options Together.
What is poverty? A lack of money? A lack of education? Housing? Hope? Yes, poverty is all that and more. At its root poverty is a lack of options. And nowhere in America do people have fewer options than in our inner cities.
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