We need to think about how we’ll use what we learn in here to make changes in our behavior that others can see.
Pekin Federal Correction Institution – Inmate observations during our Disciple study groups :
Fellas, I’ve learned new things about some of you during these studies, some of you that I’ve known and worshipped with for years. As Chaplain Jeff has told us, we really do need to take what we are learning here beyond these Chapel walls.
A great moment happened during session 2, when we were discussing How amazing God is, in the completeness of his creation that was done for us. When we talked about how we can be the hands and feet of Jesus, allowing others to see Christ through us, because of God’s Peace we have inside : One inmate asked us, “How do you do that?”.We thought he was asking How he could be the hands & feet of Jesus, so we discussed that as a group, but He interjected what he really meant to ask was, “How do I find that Peace”. Another inmate & a Brother in Christ answered, “Pray for it, and study God’s Word……. Keep trusting Him. It will be hard sometimes, but the more you trust God, the more you will see that you Can Trust God.”
Chad grew up attending an Islamic masque, but recently shared this :
“I enjoy this study because I’m experiencing an invitation accompanied by Love instead of demand accompanied by a threat.” ( Chad was Baptized a few weeks ago ).
We have been blessed to witness some incredible changes in the men attending these studies. It is encouraging to hear the men talk about sharing what they are learning back in the Housing Units, in the Library, Out on the Yard, and most importantly with their families back home ( via phone calls ).One man even shared that his wife brought their children to the prison for a visit recently, for their first time in five years. When he thanked her for bringing the kids to see him, she said it was only because she was sensing a “Real Change” in his attitude, language, and faith. ….. Praise God !
One man in this group has decided he wants to use the rest of his life helping others find the personal relationship with Jesus Christ that he now enjoys, as well as helping others avoid or overcome any kind of substance abuse habit. “I found I simply couldn’t overcome that habit until I turned it over to God and praise God He took it from me.” A carpenter by trade, he has spent his entire adult life rotating in and out of prison for numerous drug charges, admitting how desperate he used to be to find his next fix and to stick that next needle in his arm again. He now declares with clear, sober eyes, that he wants to spend the rest of his life building God’s Kingdom, not houses.
Every week we begin the Bible Study with Prayer and we close in Prayer.
We are regularly overwhelmed by the feeling of, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
These are Fathers, Husbands, Sons, Brothers…… that realize their mistakes have created immense hardship on their family. As if a Prison sentence isn’t enough punishment, they have to sit in their cell and live with that reality, knowing there isn’t anything they can do from prison, to physically help relieve their families’ struggles.
As facilitators, we pray for these men, their families, and their situations every night… We know their names and can see their faces as we pray for them. Most of them are not Hardened Career Criminals. Many of them just saw what at the time looked like an easier, more lucrative path, and ended up making some bad decisions in life, and got caught.
Because of these new Brothers in Christ, We as a team have felt a renewed purpose this year for our prayer time with God. Our own blessings seem much larger, and our own problems seem much smaller.
Whenever we wake up in the middle of the night, we immediately begin praying for, “the guys”.
Besides lifting up the Prayer Concerns they’ve shared, Our prayer is that God might use our team to help these Men become true Disciples…… for Each Other, for the other 1200 inmates out in the Compound, and for their Families back home.
We pray that God will Bless them and grant them the Peace that only He can provide.
We pray that they come to know that God Truly Loves Them…….. and so do We.
We are seeing relationships & trust building between our “Facilitation Team” and the inmates, but more importantly, between the inmates themselves. They’re really talking openly now and we look forward to what God will do through these 16 men, who are working really hard to become Disciples in a Very tough environment.
One of the men commented : “Guys, as we get into this Bible Study, and actually become “Disciples”, how are we going to act differently toward each other ….. out there in the yard, or in the dining hall ?
We need to think about how we’ll use what we learn in here to make changes in our behavior that others can see.”
When I think about giving things up for Lent – I am inspired by the fact the inmates are now buying “essentials” ( Tooth Brush, Tooth Paste, Deodorant, Shampoo, Soap, etc. ) for New Arrivals that come into the prison with “Absolutely Nothing”.
With their 12 cent per hour wages from the Prison Workshop, these guys have found a way to be “In Mission” and to “Show God’s Grace” within the Prison population….. Giving from what little they have. Again, They are teaching US.
About 25% of the men attending our study use Spanish as their primary language. They are able to follow the class conversation in English, but find it much easier to complete the daily reading & study material in Spanish. To enable their participation, we have ordered some Spanish study-bibles, and one of our team facilitators is translating the weekly Study Guide material for them. We also owe special recognition to one of the bilingual inmates ( Jorge ) who works closely with the Spanish speaking contingent to make sure they are able to follow the train of our weekly conversations.
In December, the outreach teams at Willow Hill UMC and Pekin First UMC also began sending the men Christmas cards & Birthday cards, each signed by 20-30 church members. The men have already expressed sincere appreciation for this simple sign that they are considered part of our church family.
They rarely get mail, so they read these cards over and over again.
Sean said he tries to practice humility, but he admitted that a conversation he had with his Dad this week made him feel really good. “My Dad told me he was really proud of how I’m using this time to stay positive, to improve myself, and to reach out to others.” I guess you never get to old to enjoy hearing your Dad tell you he’s proud of you. I have to tell you that every time I open my Bible, I see a Christmas card sent to me by Your Church, and it was signed by a little girl named Makenzie………. I can’t begin to tell you how important something as simple as that card is……. Especially since my Daughter’s name is Makenzie !
During the “Marks of Discipleship” discussion, there was a very special moment. Vasi has obviously lead a pretty hard life, and he often openly questions the existence of the Loving God we speak of.Vasi spoke up and said, “ Guys, I guess it’s no secret that I really struggle with having a Faith in God anything like what we see exhibited by Daniel. In my life, any relationship I’ve had with God has been one-way…. Me asking him for things, and him not answering. I know that deep inside, I have a need to worship God, and to have a relationship with Him, but I have never learned how to worship. If God really does love me, how can I worship Him ?”
The rest of the guys responded :
Be grateful for what he has already given you, even if initially that is only Life, and the sunrise each day.
Pray for guidance & wisdom, not things. He will provide what you need.
Study his word, asking that he reveal his message for you.
Make a joyful noise ( sing, praise Him )
Faith is a personal decision each of us has to make, but stay with a group like this that can help your faith grow.
Share the message, and be willing to witness about what He reveals to you.
Love, Love, Love, that’s our commandment !
Vasi, He does Love You & We love you. You were designed to be in a relationship with Him, so that nagging emptiness you feel is Him calling you.
Faith is a continuing journey Vasi, not a destination. We are all at different places on that journey, so don’t compare yourself to
Daniel or to anyone else. It’s a decision and journey that you have to make, but we will be here to help you grow & to help strengthen your faith.
The guys told us they heave a “Christian Table” they all gather at in the Library, and as they meet their regularly to Study together, the table is growing. Even Muslims have sat down to ask honest questions about the Christian Faith. The guys see these “open doors” as opportunities from God. They commented that official Library rules don’t allow more than four men at a table, but that CO’s routinely walk up to their table of 8-9 guys, and when they see the Bibles being read, they let the Community study together…. Praise God !
We also talked about people that might feel rejected, people that we could spend time with, helping to restore them to the fellowship. The guys mentioned that within a prison, there is a group of men that are considered the worst-of-the-worst, unworthy of anyone spending time with them, and unable to be saved…….. Sexual Offenders…… especially Child Molesters. The guys agreed that Jesus would have eaten with them and loved them too, so we are called to do the same. We talked about the way some people rationalize their own offenses by claiming that at least someone else is “worse”. We have all sinned, and all of our sins are against God, but if we repent and accept Christ, it doesn’t matter what our past contained. It doesn’t matter if we Robbed, It doesn’t matter if we Raped, it doesn’t matter if we Killed, it doesn’t matter if we Molested a child, it doesn’t matter if we Sold Drugs, ……………………… IT DOESN’T MATTER !
The bible tells of many patriarchs that were not exactly thrilled to receive their CALL. Many of them made some pretty lame excuses, but God typically responds with the same response :
Where I ask you to go, you must go.
What I ask you to say, you must say.
Tell others, whether they listen or not.
Listen to what I say, and don’t become rebellious like others.
Don’t be afraid of others or their words.
Don’t be afraid, I am with you, and will rescue you.
Wilson reminded us that we are not supposed to be worried about what “Man” thinks of us when we share Christ. If we do things for God’s glory…… remember #5 & #6 from above !
We talked about the reasons people might reject us when we share the Word and Traves said it usually shines a spotlight on something that they LIKE doing, and don’t want to stop doing, so they reject us & our message.
So what are we going to do different this week, based on this week’s reading ?
Be more accepting of others
Believe & Trust God
Quit making excuses !
One of the guys made a great challenge to us all : If we consider ourselves to be Christian Disciples, and if we were “arrested” for being a follower of Christ, would there be enough evidence to convict us ? What are the outward signs & symbols that prove God owns our heart ? Each of us needs to take personal stock of the “evidence trail” we are leaving behind us.
Sean mentioned that he is in a 10 man cell, and that every week as he does his assigned reading he is amazed at the opportunities to apply and share what he is reading. He mentioned the Psalm 34 verse that we are not only seek peace, but to get up and Go After It. Don’t just wish for peace…….. make it happen !
As we began the study today, Wilson was sitting on the edge of his seat, looking like he was ready to jump out of his skin, and waving his hand. When we called on him he said, “I have been waiting to be able to share this. I just gotta tell you something awesome that Sean did this week in the cafeteria….. He came across the room, greeted me, shook my hand, and then he gave me a hug !” Wilson was all smiles as he continued, “Sean obviously hasn’t heard that a white man aint supposed to hug a black man in this place…….. Praise Jesus, I want to share the hospitality that Sean shared, and he didn’t care who was watching……. He is walking the walk in here, not just talking the talk.”
Sean acknowledged that he has only been in the prison system for 5 weeks, 3 days, 10 hours, and 15 minutes ( but who’s counting ). He pointed back to Wilson and said, “Look at that smile….. Who wouldn’t love to be around that guy ?”
Sean also mentioned that hospitality comes in many forms, and that it can sometimes be hard to accept. He shared that his old neighbors have volunteered to paint his families ( his wife’s ) house, but she is concerned about accepting charity. We talked about the importance of allowing others to serve us. If the church is supposed to Love and to Serve, someone has to allow themselves to be loved and served. Even a minister, Don Piper ( 90 minutes in Heaven ) had to learn that.
Wilson spoke up and reminded us all that the Bible tells us the best kind of hospitality is extended to people that we don’t expect anything from in return. That’s being a real servant.
The guys agreed they would try to greet each other with open arms ( without looking around to see who’s watching ), and to be more giving.
Sean was transferred to an Ohio facility over the summer, but recently shared this via mail : “After studying with all of you the last two years, I missed the fellowship of the “Disciple” study group so much that I have started a weekly Bible Study here in Ohio. Thanks for getting me started !”
One of the last exercises invites each participant to consider writing their own Psalm.
One of the inmates is named Ronnie. He grew up in the Jewish Faith and had attended Synagogue his entire childhood Ronnie began attending Disciple IV in the Fall of 2017 and asked to be baptized as a Christian when in his words ; “I had always experienced a Faith that was extremely exclusive, but what I’ve experienced here with you all is a Faith that is Loving and Open to all…… it’s inviting and inclusive of everyone.”
Hear my prayer dear Lord. I’ve known hate before love, pain before happiness.
You know my heart is true, but your message seems forever dark. Hate is preached from your children in the name of your Son.
Do you listen to the cry of my heart when it comes to you as hate? When your children are unhappy & afraid, why do the wolves circle closer?
Will you listen to my voice or have my actions forever condemned me?
I’ve lied in my prayers, afraid to speak the truth. I’ve asked for strength in times of suffering, while refusing to admit to my sin.
I’ve tried to drive others from you. My heart wanted to believe, but it was easier not to.
Free Will and a Plan cannot together exist. The universe is too big to have been created by just one.
All this was in my heart while I asked You for guidance in prayer. My heart and prayers were hollow, a golden calf in the desert.
Others around me accepted the Lord in faith, but why can I not see you ? Why is the grace of God absent, or was it really there?
You’ve always been there! In the voice of a friend, or the tears of a loved one.
You built me a personal mirror, a true way to self reflect. To see the true me that I’ve tried to hide, and lied to you about.
To find You, meant finding myself, a lost man wandering in the desert, a child fumbling in the darkness.
But all the pain had a purpose. It was a key to my heart, opening me to the real me, and my soul to You.
I stand before the Light humbled, still at the edge of darkness, But now in the presence of a grace previously unknown.
I admit I was wrong, that my heart was not true. In twisting the word of your Son, I had shut the door to your grace.
You may not always respond when I speak, but now I know you are here! The signs you gave have finally opened the door.
Now I pray in honesty, with mind, heart, and soul. Thank You God for making me whole!
Ronnie began attending our Disciple IV discussion group in the Fall of 2017. As he gained confidence with the group and a sense of trust, he shared with us that even though he grew up in a loving family and faithfully attended a Jewish Synagogue, he has now decided to accept and follow Jesus Christ as his Savior.
We asked him if he’d be willing to share with us, “what attracted you to Christ ?”
I already shared with you that I grew up in a Jewish home, and that I am an openly gay man.
I have always found the world to be very segregated, political, judgmental, and hypocritical place……… Outside of prison, as well as inside prison.
In here, you are always divided up into Race, Gang Affiliation, Nationality, Language Capability, Sexual Orientation, Faith Practice, Criminal Record, on and on.
I found Judaism to be a very restrictive and closed faith, offered only to a select few, and focused primarily on history, worship practices, and rules…… not on having any kind of personal relationship with God.
When my sister died, I tried to really lean into the Jewish structure that I had learned, but it just felt like a bunch of rules, without any real focus on any actual Faith. I still felt so empty.
For a long time I have been less than satisfied in my Faith walk, so I began exploring other faiths.
I began attending other different services, but I found that I was unwilling to really accept anything different than the “faith” I had grown up in.
I was attending other services and listening to other’s opinions, only to pick them apart and criticize them.
I had become one of those bullying ass holes that I’d always hated.
I knew I needed to change……
One weekend I offered to go to church with a friend, and he said, “What about today ?”
I remember thinking, “Crap, I shoulda seen that coming !”
But then I agreed to go with him.
I told my friend that I liked the preacher’s message, and then he invited me to stay after church and attend a “Disciple Bible Study” with him. I remember thinking, “Crap….. I have nothing but time on my hands”, so I agreed to stay another two hours.
What I experienced in Disciple Bible Study was a circle of friends that showed me instant love, respect, and would not tolerate the hateful tendencies that are common out in the yard or in the housing units.
I realized that this group of guys were truly different than “the world”, and I wanted to learn more about them and about the Jesus they were studying.
That’s why I am still coming to this study group, and why I decided to accept Jesus as my personal savior.
My newfound relationship with God, through Jesus, has filled the void in my life.
My new Faith Walk forces me to look in the mirror every day to make sure I am becoming a better Christian with every passing day.
I know I’m still very much a work in progress, but I like who I’m becoming.
Back when I was so unhappy, I can now see that I didn’t like myself because I hated everyone else. No wonder I felt so empty.
Now I find Joy in these words :
Love Others as you Love Yourself
Love Others as I have Loved You
They will know you are Christians by your Love.
Now I’m working on helping my Mom understand this major decision that I’ve made for my future.
That’s gonna be another work in progress !
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If you make my word your home you will indeed be my disciples.