In Matthew 25, Jesus calls his followers to visit those in jail. Since 2010, a team of men from First Church, joined by a team of women in 2013, have answered that call. The goal of the Jail Ministry is to bring the gospel’s message to those incarcerated in Lee County jails. Teams of men and women participate in the jail’s Chaplain program which distributes Christian books and literature and conducts Bible studies with the inmates at Lee County correctional facilities. Our message is one of caring for each inmate as a child of God and we are there to share with them the gospel and what it can mean in their life and for eternity.
The library cart teams enter inmate housing facilities to distribute Christian-based materials. The volunteers that staff the library carts make themselves available for personal prayer and minister to the inmates. The volunteers who conduct Bible studies can bring the Word of God to seekers and others who may have fallen away. The chaplain gives a Bible to all that make a request and it becomes theirs to keep. The inmates are encouraged to study on their own, and we have seen many greatly expand their knowledge and understanding of the Bible. Much of the focus is on how to apply the Bible to their life and help prepare them to live outside of jail. Unfortunately, our experience is that many released inmates have ended up back in jail because they resumed their former life—the one that landed them in jail.
In response to this situation, we developed a new program for our ministry which will provide support to discharged inmates’ reentry into society. The Bridges of Hope Ministry supports the sheriff’s new program to assist inmates that request assistance for reentry. It provides “bridges of hope” to assist men and women in their transition from incarceration to reintegration. Not only does this address their immediate physical needs, such as access to food, shelter, and employment, but also provides spiritual nurturing and discipleship.
Each returning citizen, the term we use for the reentering inmate, is provided a coach, who will work with them in living responsibly in regard to their family, employer, God, and other priorities. Coaches are guided by Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens,” but not carry the returning citizen’s load, because “they must carry their own loads” (Galatians 6:5). One of the coach’s most important roles is to hold the returning citizen accountable while providing hope and helping them to see the importance of a change in their life.
In June 2023, we received our first returning citizen, Ron. For the first six weeks our coach, Dan, called Ron once a week and established a working relationship, along with a Release Plan. Ron’s reentry went very smoothly with all his immediate needs being taken care of. Dan and I met with Ron two weeks later over lunch at Cracker Barrel and Ron insisted on paying for his own meal. We also asked Ron how he was enjoying the NLT Study Bible we presented to him upon his release. Twice during the following month, we invited Ron to worship with us at First Church. each time, Ron and Dan were met at the front doors by a Deacon who sat with them during the worship service and accompanied them to the time of fellowship in McClure Hall.
This ministry requires a team effort; therefore, we have partnered with two more First Church ministries. The Deacons have stepped forward and agreed to be our prayer warriors and welcomers, and First Thrift is providing shoes and clothing for the sheriff’s reentry staff to distribute to the returning citizens. The Bridges of Hope Ministry is dependent on the number of coaches; the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Please consider joining our team and please pray for the compassion and discernment of the coaches.
by Dave Lyons