By Dee Swanson
“If being a Christian were made illegal tomorrow, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
William E. Gladstone, a statesman and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, posed this question in 1879, yet it is a query that is still worth asking today. What kind of evidence could we gather for ourselves? Virginia Beach United Methodist Church offers a host of opportunities for service, “evidence” to confirm our Christian stewardship: attending a class, serving as an usher, tithing faithfully, singing in the choir, playing an instrument in the praise band, volunteering at Potter’s House, leading a Life Group, chaperoning a youth group—to name a few.
Perhaps we could think of evidence in a different way. While we imperfect Christians may be searching for evidence to validate our Christian discipleship, there is one group with whom our church works for whom the word “evidence” has a different connotation: the inmates at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center, the largest such facility in the Commonwealth. The inmates are serving a term in the VBCC precisely because sufficient evidence was produced to convict them of a crime and incarcerate them.
In an effort to reach out to these inmates, our church partners with other local churches as part of the international Good News Jail & Prison Ministry and operates on one basic tenet: “No one is beyond Christ’s love and power to redeem.” Following the motto of “breaking the cycle of crime, one life at a time,” the group aims to use the correctional center as a place for transformation, and research supports the effectiveness of that aim. According to a 15-state study reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Over two-thirds of released prisoners were re-arrested within three years.” Some data suggest that the re-arrest rate could be as high as 80%. According to James Fryer, one of the chaplains at VBCC, “Research conducted by Christian ministries indicates that this figure may drop to as low as 5-20% for inmates who have been exposed to a consistent Christian influence,” such as the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry.
As Jim Eilertsen, a Virginia Beach United Methodist member who has volunteered with the organization for almost 30 years and now serves as board member and chairman of the Virginia Beach Chaplain Support Team, explains, “Jesus teaches us that we must share the good news and work to transform lives, to help people become whole. Our participation is not an option.”
A group of us had an opportunity to see this ministry at work recently during a “Look Behind the Walls” Tour of the VBCC. The women who are housed in the Christian Block admitted that their transformation began “as soon as the doors closed behind them,” and our tour members personally understood the power of that comment. Walking down the narrow cinder block hallways with metal gates along the way, we could feel the finality of the clink of that metal door when it closed behind us.
Incarceration encourages inmates to take an honest look at their lives, to focus and reflect. Talking with the women through the bars in their Christian Block room, we were amazed to hear them speak with optimism as they expressed gratitude toward the volunteers who are dedicated to helping them create a better tomorrow. They commented on “not feeling condemned,” but simply “lost.” In short, they said they “see God in the volunteers.”
Volunteers help the VBCC through assisting in the Life Empowerment Program, distributing Christian books from the book cart, teaching Bible study classes and lessons, grading tests, and showering the inmates with their Christian love. Sometimes if inmates have not completed their required 226 lessons, they continue their study after their release. Once the inmate is released, Jim Eilertsen said he has even helped inmates find appropriate housing and jobs.
Virginia Beach United Methodist continues to contribute significantly to this ministry, praying for the program, supplying graders for the Bible study courses, and providing much-needed financial support. No funding is received from local, state, or federal governments. To support the mission, Bob West, a Virginia Beach United Methodist member, serves as the Stewardship Chairman and sponsors two fundraising events each year: a stewardship banquet and a golf tournament. With an annual budget of about $120,000, Bob looks to the faithful stewardship of local church communities to support the program financially, particularly the annual banquet which produces about one-third of the program’s revenues. The 2019 banquet is scheduled for March 8 at the Holiday Inn on Greenwich Road. Bob will supply the congregation with more information about the banquet as we get closer to the March date. If you want to support the program but cannot attend the banquet, Bob is happy to accept donations for the event. Many of our members in the past have specifically earmarked donations to be used for that purpose.
The vision for the Good News Ministry includes “work that takes us to places most would never consider—jails and prisons—where we are seeing God do amazing things in the hearts and lives of men, women, and children behind bars.” What a joyous opportunity for us to be part of this vital ministry, another piece of “evidence” to convict us of being a loving, Christian fellowship, acknowledging Jesus’s words in Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Visit the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry website to find out how you can get involved in this life-changing ministry: https://goodnewsjail.org/