Our congregational prison ministry began in 2005 years as a personal challenge – aimed directly at Pastor Fred Nelson He had shared with a small group that he’d been vaguely attracted to prison ministry early in life but hadn’t ever done anything about it. Gino, one of the group members, wouldn’t let him off the hook easily. He kept pestering Pastor Fred with the question, “So, why don’t you just do it?”
So he did. Or at least he tried. Because “just doing it” is easier said than done sometimes. The truth is, prison ministry is tough to break into. There are barriers. There’s no clear and easy path. There are delays and wrong turns. There’s a sorting-out process that you need to go through. After waiting out nearly a year of bureaucratic foot-dragging, Fred connected up with Prison Fellowship. He got some entry-level training, worked as a small group volunteer in prison for a while, taught an Alpha Course, got his congregation involved in the Angel Tree Program to purchase Christmas presents for children of incarcerated parents, and partnered with a Chicago-based reentry ministry to provide a meal for ex-offenders. In fact, Ben Blobaum, our Program Director, went to work for this reentry ministry for three years.
Eventually, we found our niche. In a prison setting where others had seen only obstacles, we saw an opportunity. We began to distribute large-print, easy-to-understand Bibles to newly convicted inmates at a nearby prison “reception and classification center.” This grew into our congregation’s Under the Door prison ministry. Teams of congregational members began to go to Stateville Prison in Joliet, Illinois, to pray with the inmates and to distribute Bibles in the only way we could get them inside the cell – literally, under the door! The name stuck. Still, even with the Bible distribution and prayer, there seemed to be a missing piece of the work we were doing with newly-convicted inmates. We decided that many of them could benefit greatly from a practical and hope-filled handbook for prisoners. Not finding anything like that on the market, Fred decided to write it himself. With a great amount of collaboration from inmates, prison chaplains, workers in prison ministry and aftercare, and with editorial help from an evangelical book editor, he published a Spiritual Survival Guide for Prison and Beyond in March of 2012.
The success of the Survival Guide, coupled with our move to becoming a multisite congregation by opening a second location on Chicago’s west side, and the availability of Ben to take on day-to-day operations of the growing ministry, God opened the door for us to consider expanding into working with ex-offenders. Fred and Ben saw another unmet need (literally) at our new doorstep, and thought, “Yeah, let’s just do it!” Two years later, our new Inside-Out Connections ministry has attracted generous start-up grant support from Wheat Ridge Ministries and the Chicago Metro Synod’s Affiliated Missional Communities program, and enthusiastic financial, prayer, and volunteer support from our own congregation, Redeemer Church.
As we reflect back on our path into correctional ministry, it’s abundantly clear to us that there has never been any grand plan, or any single “this is exactly where you belong” moment. It’s been an unfolding series of new opportunities where Gino’s original question rings out again and again, “So, why don’t you just do it?” And so, with great humility and as much obedience and discernment to the call of God as we can muster, we’ve just done it. We’re excited to see what new things God might be calling us to next!