In prison ministry, victories outweigh defeats
Prison ministers generally agree that most inmates really do want to change. The frustrating part is, after they’re released, the two things they need most are the two things hardest to obtain: a decent place to live, and a job.
“To survive, they’re almost forced to revert to the things that got them incarcerated in the first place,” said Chaplain Charles Berry (pictured), a Salvation Army prison minister in Minnesota.
Example: Berry has been working with a man who’s been in and out of jail or prison multiple times. The man was making positive steps the last time he was released, but then he stumbled.
“He was coming to our Celebrate Recovery meetings, and the next thing we knew, he was back in prison for breaking and entering,” Berry said. “These cases are the norm. These men and women express sincere faith that they want to do well, but when they get out, things happen.”
Berry does all he can to prevent those “things” from happening, and he’s not alone. He and three other Salvation Army prison ministry staff members council thousands of inmates at 14 state and federal prisons in Minnesota and North Dakota. Each staff member visits several prisons per week and provides all sorts of services: parenting classes, Bible studies, decision-making courses, music theory, Celebrate Recovery, and much more, including Salvation Army Toy Lift during the holidays.
Just the act of visiting is itself a valuable service: A study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections indicates that inmates who receive regular visits are less likely to both commit new felonies and violate their release conditions.
Salvation Army support often continues long after inmates are released. In addition to providing basic needs such as food and clothing, prison ministers offer referrals to two Salvation Army transitional housing programs in Minneapolis – the Adult Rehabilitation Center and Harbor Light Shelter.
Every Salvation Army service is tied to the message that God is King, and that He’s all the inmates will ever need.
In many cases, the message sticks.
“Guys who are looking at life without parole finally start grasping the concept that their role is to save souls – especially spreading the gospel to some of the younger ones,” Berry said.
Other inmates with lesser sentences often apply the message to their lives after they’re released. In one case, Berry spent eight years ministering to a former gang member who used to rob drug dealers.
“Instead of doing all the work to sell the drugs, he figured he’d just take their money,” Berry said.
The man landed in prison after shooting and injuring a police officer. Although the man had become a Christian before Berry started meeting with him, Berry’s ongoing support helped strengthen the man’s faith.
Today, that man is a church pastor.
“He even met with the officer he had shot – they embraced, and forgiveness was there,” Berry said. “He’s doing quite well now, and ministers to guys in situations similar to what he was in.”
Salvation Army prison chaplain John Hulteen uses Romans 7:15-25 as his go-to verse for getting through to people. In those verses, Paul talks about wanting to do the right thing but finds it impossible because of the sin living in him.
“This is an important verse for people who’ve struggled with alcohol, methamphetamine and other drugs, because they know they’ll face the same demons the minute they’re released,” Hulteen said. “Once they realize it’s the sin living in them that is contributing to their problems, and that they’re not capable of dealing with those problems on their own, they begin opening up to God. Suddenly, we’re on a new pathway forward.”
When it’s all said and done, Berry said, “the victories in prison ministry easily outweigh the defeats. Every person is worth the effort, no matter what.”
Here’s another success story about a woman to whom The Salvation Army spent years ministering. She’s since become a successful heavy equipment operator.
In some cases, The Salvation Army relies on volunteers to help with prison outreach. Their responsibilities range from advisory roles for ex-convicts, to providing basic needs items when inmates are released.
Lee Isensee, a Salvation Army service extension volunteer in Valley City, North Dakota, recently created this prison outreach program: