Story by Jonathan Erdman
Photos by Josh Larson
The Florida spring air was fresh, but the scenery in the South Bay Correctional & Rehabilitation Facility at first glance looked like a typical correctional facility with concrete and razor wire. Yet, despite the setting, the inmates, who participate in daily, enhanced rehabilitation programs at South Bay, were laughing, cheering, and having such a good time that for a brief time, some of them forgot they were in prison. They felt noticed by the outside world. They felt loved. The message from the Calvary Chapel Mercer County, NJ, softball team was clear: God sees them and loves them. They are not alone.
“I was naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” Matthew 25:36
Ministering Through Sport
CC Mercer County, in Ewing, NJ, has been ministering in prisons since 2015 by taking men’s softball teams that are partnered with the Saints Prison Ministry (SPM) based in Moorestown, NJ. Initially, Mercer’s team would visit prisons much closer to home, but COVID-19 forced many prisons to close to outside visitors. Florida prisons, however, are open and the church seized the opportunity in 2022 to minister by raising funds for air travel and a hotel stay for a short-term mission trip.
The trips to play softball with prison inmates provide “a great opportunity for guys who may be on the sidelines in regular, everyday ministry,” commented Brenden Hellyer, CC Mercer County’s trip leader. The church already had a softball team, so for many of the men, doing ministry through softball was a natural transition.
That doesn’t mean these trips are easy. Brenden has visited about 40 prisons, and his father was one of the original members of SPM, formed in 1988. Brenden said that sometimes the most difficult part is getting through the front gates. All the logistics of the event are confirmed, and reconfirmed, with the prison administration months in advance; yet on occasion, the team arrives at the facility and the prison is not prepared for them. In other cases, tensions are high inside the walls and the officers consider barring visitors. It’s a spiritual battle, and sometimes Satan’s first tactic is to keep the team from entering the prison. So even before entering, the team faces a real test of faith. Almost always, the team is allowed in the prison, which they attribute to the army of prayer warriors back home interceding for them every day.
“And the Lord, He is the One who goes before you. He will be with you, He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed.” Deuteronomy 31:8
The Importance of Prayer
Pastor Gregg Downs said that every man who goes on the softball trip is required to have no less than 10 people committed to pray for him each day. Some of the men had as many as 50 people praying. With 14 players on the trip altogether, that’s a lot of prayer support. Each player is encouraged to update his prayer team daily with testimonies of what took place during the day, as well as with prayer requests for what lies ahead. This is one way the entire church gets involved in the mission—and how the Lord is sought to prepare the hearts of those who will hear the Gospel.
Ministering to Prisoners & Officers
After each softball game, the SPM team shares a message directly from the field where player testimonies and the Gospel message are presented. Those who choose to can fill out an information card, which includes their birthdate. SPM, with the help of partnering churches, mails about 20,000 hand-signed birthday cards every year. It’s common to visit a prison and meet an inmate who says he is thankful for recently receiving a card, some mentioning that it’s the only card they received for their birthday.
Pastor Gregg shared how it is also common to run into inmates who have been transferred from a different facility. He recognized one inmate from an earlier trip, who had been so positive and on fire for the Lord only months prior—but now was discouraged because of recent family news that he could do nothing about because of his incarceration. Noticing his change in demeanor, Gregg was able to encourage and minister to the man in a deeper way.
Corrections officers (COs), who have emotionally draining occupations, also listen to the SPM messages. In many cases, the team visits provide a sense of relief for them amidst bleak circumstances. Gregg recalled an instance in a different state prison, as the team was being ushered out due to a disturbance developing elsewhere in the yard, when a CO took the time to ask for more information on what was being shared. “It is not just the inmates who are impacted for the Gospel,” Gregg said.
Disciples Making Disciples
“No one is beyond hope,” Pastor Gregg emphasized. “No one is beyond what Jesus can do.”
José is an older man who was recently incarcerated. As soon as Brenden asked the inmates to indicate on their cards if they wanted to follow Christ, José started to cry and break down. “His wife recently divorced him, and he was so broken and so lost,” Brenden recounted. “To be able to put my arm around him and pray with him was a real blessing.”
Brenden exhorted, “The men behind these fences and concrete walls are really just men. We shouldn’t just write them off like the rest of society has.”
Will Lynch, associate pastor at CC Mercer County, shared how the Lord used the trip to make a lasting impact on the faith of one young man from the church team. Ryan had come to Christ recently and took the opportunity to share his testimony with the inmates. According to Will, “You could have heard a pin drop. Every inmate was listening intently to what Ryan was sharing.” God was using the story of what He had done in Ryan’s heart to open the inmates’ hearts to the Gospel. Yet, it was Ryan who was probably affected the most. In his young faith, he had experienced the Lord strengthening him as he stepped out in obedience.
In addition to these in-person visits, any inmate who completes a response card will also receive follow-up correspondence from the Saints. Any offender who wants to grow in faith can enroll in one of three Bible correspondence courses. On a more personal level, the inmates may develop pen-pal relationships with not only the players on the team, but with believers they have never met who volunteer with the Saints. So, even after the team leaves a prison, the discipleship ministry continues.
Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead. Philippians 3:13
Fields Ripe for Harvest
The biggest challenge facing ministries like this is that there are more prisons open to these ministry opportunities than there are available teams. Prison administrations countrywide are familiar with, and highly value, the type of program that CC Mercer provided on this trip, so demand is never a challenge. These fields are truly ripe for harvest—SPM already has invitations extended into 2023 and simply needs churches to come alongside in partnership to meet that demand.
If churches feel led to assemble teams, there are opportunities beyond softball: Basketball is the Number One participation sport in prison. Soccer is increasingly popular in many parts of the country, and many women’s prisons have athletic teams as well. Even if a believer isn’t athletic, there is always a need for non-athletes to minister during games, become prayer partners, sign birthday cards, and especially to disciple through correspondence. According to Brenden, at least 60 men touched by this ministry are waiting for pen pals.
“There are lots of ways to get involved, either through Saints ministry or just by working to get access into your local prison,” Pastor Gregg said. Prison ministry is important, and the inmates within those hardened walls are ready, with hearts softened by the Holy Spirit, for just a glimmer of hope—hope that can only come from Jesus Christ.
To learn more about partnering with the Saints Prison Ministry, visit saintsprisonministry.org or call Director Frank Zeidler at 856-304-8262.
To learn more about Calvary Chapel Mercer County, visit ccmercer.com
This story was first published in the Winter 2023 Issue (Issue 94) of Calvary Chapel Magazine.
Sponsor Message: Calvary Bible Institute is a one-year program designed to equip those who are called to serve the Lord in full-time ministry. Visit CBI’s website to learn more about their programs at calvarybi.com
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