(Photo: Brian Long)
Prison Fellowship, working in conjunction with the Luis Palau Association, recently held a number of special events that brought some fun and the Gospel message to thousands of Northern California prisoners.
According to Rick Atchley, Prison Fellowship's field director for Northern California, an estimated 5,000 inmates heard the Gospel message and about 500 of them made decisions for Christ during a tour of five Sacramento-area institutions that began on June 9 and concluded Thursday.
"Everybody was thrilled. The staff was very pleased with the way things happened. The inmates, obviously, were overjoyed ... it's been a great campaign," said Atchley.
Operation Starting Line (OSL), a division of Prison Fellowship that collaborates with other ministries in order to share the Gospel with inmates, worked closely with the Luis Palau Association over the course of the last year to plan this month's events. In less than a week the ministries held events at a number of prisons, including "old" Folsom State Prison, "new" Folsom, Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, California State Prison, Solano and the Sacramento County Juvenile Hall.
At these events, in addition to hearing speakers like evangelist Andrew Palau and Prison Fellowship President Garland Hunt, inmates also had the opportunity to listen to live music, watch a Christian comedy act, watch BMX bike riders perform tricks and more. One performer, gospel singer Tim Kepler, had a special connection with the crowd at Folsom State Prison, because he was previously incarcerated there.
Although they primarily worked with inmates, the ministries didn't forget to give attention to the prison officers and staff members too. Operation Starting Line went to several of the prisons in the week leading up to the events and held "staff appreciation days," where officers and other prison staff members were given snacks and drinks as a sign of gratitude for their service.
"You typically walk past the officers, the staff members, to minister to the prisoners ... and so when they see us walking past them to minister to the inmates, I think sometimes it builds up some resentment," said Atchley. "In fact, in their hearts and their spirit they're saying, 'Hey, we need Jesus too. We need help too.'"
Atchley says it is important for Christians to understand that there is a Christian presence within many prisons already, and prisoners are often more receptive to the Gospel message because of the conditions they live in.
"They have a better chance of getting it because they can't hide behind a job, or a nice car, or nice clothes. They've got somebody else's blue clothes that 10 other people wore before they did. They've lost everything ... they're stripped to nothing. So there's nothing to hide behind," he said.
He also believes Christians who have been in prison serve as the "perfect ambassadors" to current inmates and to the communities that they return to when they are finished serving their sentence.
For that reason, Prison Fellowship and World Impact have teamed up to launch a program called The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI). TUMI is like seminary "without the Hebrew and the Greek," Atchley described, and is designed to raise up Christian leaders among the inmates and see them transform from "prisoners into pastors." A TUMI program is currently being put together at Folsom State Prison.