Sunday, October 7, 2012

Going to Church in Jail

Every six weeks our church sends a group of guys to the Dakota County Jail in Hastings, Minnesota.  The guys go down to minister to the inmates there.  Dakota County Jail is essentially an interim holding station for inmates.  In other words, guys go to Dakota County if they are awaiting sentencing a court date, or something else in their legal proceedings.  Because of this, there is a high turnover rate, and most of the guys we minister to won't be there the next time we come down.  They will have either been sentence and therefore moved to a different facility, or perhaps even released after their court date.  It's always a special privilege for me to go with the guys to the jail and minister.

Dakota County Jail is remarkably similar on the exterior and interior to a mid-sized high school.  The exterior of the building looks almost identical to the building where I attended high school, and the interior is very much like a high school.  There are classrooms, a library, and even a gymnasium.  The only thing that makes it feel like a jail is the jump suits the inmates wear, and the fact that all the doors lock behind you.  The color of the jumpsuits worn by the inmates is determined by the level of security they are under.  In other words, guys in minimum security will wear a certain colored jump suit.  Guys in maximum security will wear a different color.  There are, I think, five different levels of security in the jail, and guys from each level come to "church" on Sunday mornings.

The service is held in the gymnasium, and about 100 of the jail's 250-280 inmates attend the service which, when you think about it, is a pretty significant percentage.  Most of the guys look as though they have lived a hard life, and that is because they have.  A lot of the guys have stories about why they are where they are, that they are more than willing to talk about.

I've had the opportunity to preach at the jail several times now, and I have to say that it is one of the most unusual places where one can preach.  For one thing, I am never sure how to present my message.  This is an audience with whom I have little in common - at least externally.  I have never been to jail, nor have I ever been arrested or even in significant trouble with the law.  The worst I've ever been through was a court date for a traffic violation (which I was acquitted of, I might add).  I'm also concerned that, because of the seeming disconnect that I have with the inmates, I might lose authenticity with my audience.  That is, they might see through me, that I am a goody-two-shoes.  Thirdly, whenever I preach I am worried about being too technical when I say things.  Most of the guys in the jail have either never set foot in a church or haven't been since childhood.  So I usually try to keep my words and concepts pretty simple.  Thankfully, every time I've had the opportunity to preach at the jail, none of my fears have been realized and I think I've been able to communicate in an authentic, real, and understandable way.

Today I was asked to preach once again, and I chose Psalm 139 as my topic.  I had planned to talk about what God knows about each of us, and to go into issues about thoughts and attitudes of the heart, and how they condemn us before God.  This wasn't quite how it went down, however.  A lot of the guys who go with the church down to the jail have been to jail themselves, and have great stories to tell the inmates about how God can reform and change lives - even lives that have been in jail.  Needless to say, as great as these testimonies are, they take time, and sometimes the preaching time is cut a bit short.  That's fine.  I think those guys from Riverview who share their testimony have just as - if not more - important things to say as I do.

Today my time was cut to about 12 minutes, and I tried to take advantage of it.  I spent a bit of time on sin and God's knowledge of our sinful condition, but I also wanted to spend some time on verses 7-12 of Psalm 139.  These verses talk about how we cannot escape God's presence, no matter where we go. God is present everywhere - in the highest heights and the lowest low.  And I think this applies not just to our physical circumstances, but also to spiritual ones.  When we are as low as we can get - which a lot of guys are, being in jail - God still can and does occupy those spaces, and he is able to hear and respond to the cries of those who would trust in him.

Can you imagine being in jail?  Cut off from loved ones, from the outside world, from any kind of gainful employment, from any kind of "normal" life, not to mention the damage to one's reputation that a time in jail can incur.  I can imagine how it would be easy to lose hope very quickly in such circumstances.  In the context of jail and what inmates are feeling while they are in jail, I think it's important to communicate that even these guys where they are have access to God.  They are no less able to call out to God because they are in jail, or because they may have committed serious crimes for which they are or will be punished.

My evidence of this was the story of Jonah and how he - even from the belly of a fish swimming around in the ocean - was able to call out to God.  If jail seems like a hopeless place, imagine being in the belly of a fish!  It certainly can't seem too much more hopeless than that.  But even though Jonah was in the belly of a fish, God heard his prayer.  God was able to meet him even in that place, as God is able to meet anyone in any place they are - even in jail.  All you must do is call out to him in repentance and faith.

I really like going to the jail.  In some ways, it's a forgotten mission field.  Let's face it: most people don't consider inmates as being a very desirable group of people, and indeed, most of them aren't - at least on the outside.  Plus, I think we are predisposed that prisoners are either "too far gone" to be interested in the things of God, or that they have displayed by the actions that landed them in jail that they aren't able to believe the Bible.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  These guys are looking for answers.  They are looking for hope.  After all, most of them are at the lowest points in their lives.  They are dying for something solid to hold on to.

Ministering to prisoners isn't easy.  Sometimes ministries aren't even allowed access to prisoners.  In this sense, Dakota County is great.  They let us come in and do whatever we want with them, with very few restrictions.  It just takes time and a lot of faith that God will do something.

These inmates are who they are: sinners in need of the gospel.  Their hearts are no more wicked than mine was, and God did something with that.  He can certainly do some amazing work with prisoners.

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