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How I Became Involved In Prison Ministry

How I Became Involved In Prison Ministry

How I became involved in prison ministry

By Mark Hicks

I was raised in middle class America, and my life was fairly typical of a North Carolina boy growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.

I never gave much thought to the nameless men in green jumpsuits picking up trash on the highway. I assumed they had committed awful crimes, and television reinforced the notion they were dangerous.

They were people to keep at a distance!

Not on radar

In 1987, I completed my degree at Duke Divinity School and assumed my first pastoral charge in Cedar Falls, N.C., a rural community just outside of Asheboro. In spite of the fact there was a county prison down the road, prisoners were not on my radar screen. I never went to the prison nor did I encourage my people to go.

I’m sure our little church would have responded to the needs of inmates had they been encouraged to do so. They were caring Christian people who were engaged in community ministries, including Meals on Wheels and ministries to children in the community.

Still, no one thought about the unseen population behind the razor wire and stone walls.

Looking back, I do not recall a single seminary professor who encouraged students to visit prisoners, nor do I remember conference initiatives aimed at inmates and their families. If this did take place, I was blind to it.

Later I discovered there were a few pioneers like Bishop Kenneth Carder and Dr. Jerry Murray who were advocating church participation in prison ministry. Later, these two men became mentors to me.

Change in perspective

In 1995, I was serving as an associate pastor at Mount Pisgah UMC in Greensboro.

Our church was a large congregation with a vibrant ministry. Disciple Bible Study was a central component of the church’s ministry. More than 300 members had been through the Disciple program and good things were taking place as a result. People were realizing God gives all Christians gifts for ministry to use in His service.

In May, 1995, two members, Darrell Sayles and Darrell Hayden, told me they wanted to do more with the Disciple Bible study.

“Maybe,” they said, “we can take this study to prison!” Though I knew little about prison ministry, I was captured by the enthusiasm of these men and their commitment to serve God in this way.

“Sounds like a good idea,” I said. “I will help you.”

After working though the bureaucracy at the local prison and being told “No” by a skeptical chaplain, Chaplain Mike Lee helped the two Darrell’s find a place of ministry at Forsyth Correctional Center in Winston-Salem.

In the fall of 1995, they gave up their Saturday mornings to lead Disciple Bible study sessions at Forsyth.

The first class went so well that the three of us worked together to expand the program to other facilities.

Ministry expands

In 1997, we held our first training event for new volunteers and were overwhelmed when more than 70 persons stepped forward to minister to those in prison.

Moved by the power of God, doors began to open.

Soon the ministry had gone from one to more than fifty North Carolina prisons.

In 1998, a taskforce of the North Carolina and the Western North Carolina established a state-wide mission to promote Disciple in prisons and local churches.

In June, 1999, Disciple Bible Outreach Ministries (DBOM) was officially chartered as a ministry of the two North Carolina conferences, and I was appointed the founding director.

The contributions of Darrell Hayden and Darrell Sayles cannot be overstated.

Darrell Hayden taught Disciple in prison for a number of years, served on the organizational task force, and later worked closely with me as associate director. He died in 2011, but his inspiration lives on.

Darrell Sayles served on the organizational task force and was named chairperson of the DBOM Board of Directors. He still teaches Disciple in prison every week. “The ministry has blessed my life,” he says.

Increasing numbers of volunteers joined the movement, and, in 2002, DBOM and the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice created Rings of Fellowship, a Bible study program for young people in Youth Development Centers and local churches.

In November, 2010, the Connectional Table encouraged the expansion of DBOM ministries, and, in 2011, Ernie Pearson, a respected North Carolina attorney and a DBOM prison volunteer, created a plan that led to the creation of DBOM National.

Partnership with UM Men

While we had the plan, we needed the manpower to make this expansion a reality.

Gil Hanke and the General Commission on UM Men put wind in our sails.

Gil, Ernie Person, Bishop Kenneth Carder, Bishop Richard Wilke and I met at Bishop Wilke’s home in Lake Junaluska to forge a “memorandum of understanding” between DBOM National and the commission.

After receiving grants from the Connectional Table and the General Board of Church and Society, DBOM ministries were chartered in Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana and Illinois.

None of this would have been possible without the dedicated work of UM Men leaders like Gene Mims and Gary Fussy in Virginia; Jerry Nail and Charles Gilliland in Tennessee; Mike Grace, Gard Wayt and Mark Lubbock in Louisiana; and Mark Dehority and Steve Nailor in Illinois, just to name a few. Additional expansions are in the works.

This story of how a reluctant young pastor became involved in prison ministry shows God is in the business of changing lives of prisoners, volunteers, and yes, even pastors.

We don’t know where God will eventually take us, but we do know we are clay on the wheel of the Master Potter, and “with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

John Wesley visited the prisons weekly and Jesus reminds us: “I was in prison and you visited me.” As Methodist Christians we are compelled by scripture, history, tradition, and love to offer grace to those behind the prison walls.

I call all men to join us in this ministry. Will you respond? 

written by Ricjard Peck, originally published in UM Men