Click the link below for the full edition!
by Frank Zeidler, Executive Director
Silly question, right? You’ve been staying home, being careful, keeping your distance, and trying to figure out how to accessorize a mask. But for us, it isn’t such a silly question. What does an evangelical prison ministry do when the prisons close their collective doors?
The obvious answer is that we do have an incredible outreach that doesn’t require walking through a prison gate. You are well aware of the impact the SPM birthday card ministry, and that has not changed at all. The volunteers involved in signing and sending our birthday cards have had to adapt a little bit to the current circumstances, but they did not let the Covid precautions stop them from getting the cards out as scheduled.
However, given that we recently passed the one-year anniversary of our last in-prison ministry opportunity, the original question is very real; what has the staff of the ministry been doing? As a supporter of the ministry, I think you deserve an answer…even though you didn’t ask the question!
After spending the first six months of Covid-closures trying to salvage some form of 2020 softball season, it became apparent that we were not going to be entering a state or federal prison at all in 2020. Once that was clear, we determined to continue ministering without being able to go in person.
Our NE Lady Saints were the first team to pick up that mantle. They recorded a video that somewhat replicated a typical Lady Saints visit, shot from the perspective of an inmate. As with every visit, it included not only game action but also a Gospel message passionately delivered by Jill from her living room! I also have to give a special shout out to high school student Alex Spositi for using his editing talents to turn our VERY amateur video into something worthy of sending to prisons. And that is exactly what we did – in early 2021 we sent the finished product to 8 different women’s prisons in the NE region. Most we have been to in the past, but a few were added that have never invited our team. Maybe this will be the impetus for them to finally invite our Lady Saints to share the Gospel in their facility!
At the same time, the NJ Soccer team indicated they were not happy with having no ministry opportunities and indicated they wanted to do something for those men they would have seen during their 2020-21. Together we formulated a plan to write to every inmate who filled out a response card during the 2019-20 soccer season – 93 letters, signed by the whole team, sent to the seven prisons in which they ministered their last season. We anxiously anticipate the responses to come pouring in soon!
In March, the NJ basketball team and the men’s softball teams in GA took their turn recording and producing Virtual Visits. In taking this opportunity to the next level, we engaged a professional company to record and produce the NJ basketball event. As part of the agreement, they supplied us with the digital file for future use and 50 DVDs to be mailed to prisons all over DE, NJ, NY, and PA, as well as the prisons from the team’s 2020 crusade.
I am certain that you will agree with me that His sovereignty has been especially evident in the last 12 months, and I believe that God has sustained the Saints Prison Ministry through this pandemic because He has a purpose for us. Maybe there will be ministries that will choose not to go back inside, creating new opportunities for us.
Maybe God plans on opening doors in states we haven’t visited yet, or maybe He has something completely different in mind for us. With that in mind, we used this time to improve the infrastructure of the ministry. Our staff created a page on our website specifically for missionary-athletes (MAs). It is something we have discussed for many years and we finally had the time to invest in making it happen. Once we had a dedicated space for MAs, we focused on updating all of our prison clearance forms and making them “fillable” forms –meaning our almost 200 MAs can complete the forms right on the computer, then just print them out and sign them.
Every organization needs some form of structure and the Saints Prison Ministry is no different. Our protocols and policies had not been reviewed since 2006 so, in conjunction with the Board of Trustees, I took advantage of the extra hours to completely rewrite the SPM Employee Handbook. It was time well spent because we discovered that many HR issues of the 21st century – even in a non-profit, Christian ministry – were not addressed at all in 2006!
There are more housekeeping functions that we addressed as well, but I won’t bore you with those details. As you can see, the staff of the Saints Prison Ministry has kept busy caring for some aspects of the organization that were “back burnered” for a long time. Our organization, specifically Director of Team Operations Jimmy Cochran, maintained the relationships we have developed with prisons all over the country; and in some cases, grew those relationships to transcend individual prisons and reach state level. Most importantly, our teams and Directors sought – and found – ways to share the Gospel when Satan thought he had the upper hand!
God has blessed us far more than most of us anticipated a year ago. Not just sustained us, but blessed us: with sufficient finances, with determined volunteers, with passionate missionary-athletes, and with a resolute staff and Board. The verse I claimed when I entered full-time ministry in 2000 is even more applicable today:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8,9
After what I experienced in the last 12 months, whatever He has for us next is okay with me!
This is not hyperbole: I never doubted that we would get back to ministering face-to-face inside prisons. Honestly, I could think of no other reason God sustained us for 13 mostly inactive months. However, “My ways are higher than your ways…” was never more evident than now!
To understand this requires a little historical perspective. The last pre-pandemic softball game played in a Saints uniform was on March 7, 2020 at Marion CI in Region 3 of Florida. Region 3 includes 9 men’s prisons: Avon Park, CFRC, DeSoto, Hardee, Lake, Marion, Polk, Sumter, and Zephyrhills. The recently completed Citrus Country 3 crusade was also to Region 3 of Florida. Now watch God work.
In 2020, I notified all 9 men’s prisons of the upcoming crusade. After much planning, we were set to go. But the schedule was changed by two last minute prison cancellations – one due to a Warden change and one due to a lockdown the Friday before we were to leave. We scrambled to fill those holes and the schedule was finalized on Monday, one day before we left on Tuesday! We ministered at 4 of those 9 men’s facilities – Sumter, Zephyrhills, Hardee, and Marion – and saw over 1,500 men in those yards.
Fast forward to March 2021. We found out that Florida is actively courting volunteers, so we leap at the opportunity. Our first contact was with the current Special Events Coordinator, who informs me a) she is new and still trying to understand the process, b) she doesn’t know who we are, and c) there is a problem with the computer system that she must sort out. God bless her, because she could have told me “try again next year” with all of those obstacles. But God put her in place for a reason. She worked with me, offered advice, and finally said “Just submit a proposal and I’ll try to get it approved.”
I submitted Polk CI because they were the first ones to contact me this year, and then added Hardee CI and Avon Park CI due to their proximity to Polk. I heard back a week later – everything we asked for was approved, and the plan was passed down to the three wardens for their response. Each warden replied to the message with a resounding “Yes”! We were shocked – but God wasn’t.
Hardee CI was a repeat from 2020, invited only due to proximity, but would you like to guess which two prisons had canceled at the last minute in 2020? Correct…Polk CI and Avon Park CI.
I could have listed any of the 9 prisons on the 2021 application. It certainly would have made sense to go back to the same 4 prisons from 2020, since we know they enjoyed our visit. But God had other plans and had already primed those prisons that blocked us in 2020 to be the ones to welcome us back. Reflecting on this, I was reminded of Psalm 118, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the LORD had done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
God had the Citrus Country 3 crusade planned since March of 2020 – and He did so as only He is able!
by Tom Gibson, IL Saints Softball Coach
I wish I had a more epic story about how I have spent the last 12 months. I wish I could tell you a tale of how I spent my year of social distancing at a forgotten village in the Himalayas being trained by Liam Neeson, John MacArthur, and Jedi Ghost Don Zimmer. Once the pandemic was over, I would be ready to be the best prison minister, missionary athlete, and vigilante of all time. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything quite that interesting.
But even in the pandemic, God chose to encourage me as a missionary athlete. One of the highlights of my past year was attending my church’s annual missions conference. This conference always rekindles a spark in my heart for what we do in prison. This year, more than others, it made me really, really miss a normal Saints season. Here are some of my major takeaways from our missions conference.
I Underappreciated Spending a Day in Prison
A visiting missionary to Bradley University had a term for time spent discipling college students – he called it Life-on-Life time. This involved his living room being filled with college students who piled their shoes up at his front door, ate all of the food in his kitchen, and learned the Bible together with him in his living room. As he showed the slides of them spending time ministering this way, my heart sank and missed spending a day in prison. I missed the games, but I really missed the conversations in the grass by the softball fields, sitting across from inmates during a prison meal, and praying with guys who may have heard the Gospel for the first time. Life-on-Life time as I know it!
God’s Word Changes Hearts
Another missionary was a young lady who is translating the Bible into the different Nigerian languages. She talked about what it meant for people to hear God’s Word in their own native language; how people’s eyes would light up or even fill with tears when they finally heard the Bible in their own language. Hebrews 4:12 tells us, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” I reflected on what a privilege it is to preach the Word to the inmates that we see. My teammates and I have also seen eyes light up and men start to cry when the Word pierces their heart and strikes at the core of who they are! There are several things I miss about our visits, but I really miss sharing the life changing news of the Gospel out on the prison yard.
Confessions of a Useless Missionary
One of the things that struck me the most was something that one of the missionaries said in passing. He talked about all of the mistakes that he had made over 20 years in ministry and jokingly said that he could write a book called, “Confessions of a Useless Missionary.” We discussed how God extends grace and works through us, despite our sin nature and imperfections. This hit home for me as I have made more mistakes as a missionary athlete and as a coach than I ever care to admit. I keep a small journal on my phone, with the title of one section being “Things I would tell myself if I could go back to 2011.” One of my entries is: “It takes 10 years to get 10 years of experience.” Since launching the IL team in 2011, I have spent a few Saturday evenings discouraged after a prison visit; about something I may have said incorrectly when sharing the Gospel, of not having the right answer for an inmate’s question at the correct moment, or with struggling over some aspect of trying to lead our team. This missionary’s conversation was an encouragement to me.
2 Corinthians 12:9 tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” If we didn’t make any mistakes or didn’t have any discouragement, we would be tempted to take all of the glory for ourselves and not give it to God. This missions conference showed me that God is still at work and that the Gospel is still going out. I have never had a better appreciation for missions and I can’t wait for our first Saturday visit, whenever that may be!