by Frank Zeidler, Jr., Executive Director
I know there is more… but I simply cannot finish this famous literary reference because the concluding line has no place in this story. The story begins with an invitation, and it ends with God astonishing a group of seasoned Saints Prison Ministry veterans – seemingly at every turn!
In October, as part of the Everglades Expedition crusade, our team visited Moore Haven Correctional Facility in South Florida. This is a prison operated by The Geo Group, a for-profit company contracted to run prisons that house state or Federal inmates. During that visit, our team was welcomed as guests, ministered to 300 inmates in the yard, and witnessed 14 men make a profession of faith.
Shortly after that visit, we were contacted by a representative of the company with a unique invitation: a former professional football player was going to visit Moore Haven to play softball and minister to the inmate population. He was bringing a team of other former professional athletes who are Christians and, when he heard the reports of our visit, he wanted us to join their event!
To save time I will skip the planning process, but the end result was a two-day ministry trip involving two Geo Group facilities in South Florida. To quote Jackie Gleason, “And awaaaay we go…”
Friday morning the team arrived at the front gate of South Bay CF as scheduled, where the Warden of the facility met them. He came out to regretfully inform us that the prison had been the scene of multiple stabbings due to gang violence just a few days before we arrived. Because of this, the entire facility was on lockdown – the worst word we could ever hear at the front gate of a facility. However, he quickly followed that comment with the apology that, because of the lockdown, he would only be able to bring one or two dorms out to see us today! What? Lockdown means no one is moving anywhere for any reason – chapel is canceled, meals are served in the cells, programs are suspended… but not this time.
Once in the yard, escorted the entire way by the Warden, we found a team excited to see us and a field that had seen no attention all week because of the lockdown. Once again, apologies followed but never a thought of stopping the event. Despite the prison being locked down, a sizable portion of the administrative staff was in the yard, along with a team banner for the South Bay Sugar Canes and brand new canopies set up to keep the teams and scorekeepers protected from the sun.
Lunch was served at the pavilion about 300 feet away, catered by the prison’s culinary arts program. The lunch break also featured live entertainment from the prison band, playing worship music…in their own style, of course. It was an amazing time of fellowship and camaraderie, all overseen by Geo administration. The prison was on lockdown, yet we distributed 300 Gospels of John, preached to about 175 men and women, and saw eight men make a profession of faith.
But Friday wasn’t over yet…
We left South Bay CF just in time to stop at the hotel, clean up, and get to Moore Haven CF (about 40 minutes from South Bay CF) in time for a catered dinner in our honor. The dinner was attended by our team, the two inmates team scheduled to play the next day, the Asst. Warden who came in on Friday night to make us feel welcome, and six Golden Retrievers – part of the prison’s very successful service dog training program! What made this dinner most unique is that it was catered by the family of one of the inmates…who were allowed to stay and spend the evening with their son! We spent the evening engaged with the inmate population, talking trash, and making friends.
Saturday was supposed to be a long day… and it was! We arrived at 8 a.m. to play against the Moore Haven Moon Pies “B” team, while the “A” team was schedule to take on the celebrity team after lunch. However, the “A” team was looking for a little payback from losing in October, so they opted to play us in the morning and leave the “B” team to play the celebrities! The “A” team regrets that decision now, since we scored almost 50 runs that morning, but it was a wonderful time of softball and fun.
Before the game, the Geo Group took us all by surprise and presented the Saints Prison Ministry with a gift of $5,000 for the work of advancing the Gospel behind prison fences. It was an unbelievably generous donation, particularly in this era of limiting the overlap between “church and state” in the prison system!
Lunch was once again provided by the prison – this time a cookout on a trailer grill – And once again music provided by the prison band (if we’re keeping score, the South Bay band was better but let’s keep that between us).
After lunch, the “celebrity team,” led by former NFL player Jack Brewer and including former Pro Bowl Chicago Bear Tommie Harris, arrived to play the Moon Pies. Before they played, Jack introduced the former players in attendance, and each took a couple minutes to share the story of their faith journey. The game was a lot of fun, but the Moon Pies “B” team handled the celebrities and walked away with a win in the showcase event. What came next was yet another unexpected blessing.
Despite the celebrities in attendance and the “show” being about them, Jack Brewer deferred to us and allowed the Saints Prison Ministry to take the ministry lead! The basketball court was on a slight hill, so our speakers experienced something we don’t often see – speaking from an elevated position with about 300 inmates sitting on the ground in total silence. A sea of people waiting to hear the Word of God preached boldly, with no distraction. And they heard exactly that! Bob Hellyer shared a testimony of God’s grace and mercy, followed by Jim Jefferson’s message of God’s love reaching them in a dark place. At the end of the day, after preaching twice and playing softball all day., we distributed almost 400 Gospels of John, preached to 240 men and women, and witnessed another 45 inmates come to know Jesus as their Savior!
There were multiple times during these 48 hours that veteran Saints MAs looked at each other and said, “Does that ever happen anywhere else?” It was an unbelievable time of ministry; time spent bathing in the Holy Spirit’s presence. Yet there was one recurring theme as we talked among ourselves after the fact: the people of the Geo Group genuinely care about the men in their charge. Not about statistics or census numbers – but about helping the state inmates assigned to their facility come out as better husbands, fathers, and men than they were when they were admitted. It showed in every aspect of our time in these two prisons, and we heard it from those that are housed in South Bay CF and Moore Haven CF. This is an organization really trying to make a difference and that message was crystal clear to everyone involved – inmates, staff, and visitors alike!
This was the most intense 48 hours of my ministry career, and I doubt it will ever be replicated. It was a time of amazing experiences at every turn: interaction with the inmates, response to the Gospel, respect for us as ministers, the Geo Group’s approach to incarcerations, the harmony of Saints MAs who had never met before Thursday night, and the Holy Spirit settling over the Lake Okeechobee area for 48 hours. More than 1,000 words later I still feel I haven’t done the trip justice, but it’s all I have until we get to Glory…and you get to see the movie in reruns!
One of the comments we hear the most in letters from inmates is, “my family has forgotten me, but I received the Saints birthday card and you let me know that I am not forgotten.” Certainly, this feeling is even stronger when a prisoner receives a handwritten letter from a Saints Pen Pal who has taken time out of their daily life to share the written word with them!
Whether it be to encourage them from God’s Word, talk to them about a problem they find themselves facing inside the prison walls, or just to banter about current events your letter makes a difference for that inmate.
Thank you to those of you who are faithfully serving in this part of our ministry, but we are currently in need of additional Pen Pals; we find ourselves with a waiting list of men and women who very desperately would like a friend to correspond with. If you feel God tugging on your heartstrings to make a difference in someone’s life, perhaps that someone is a person you may never meet!
Please go to our website to complete the Volunteer application and look at the Pen Pal Guidelines or call the Saints Prison Ministry office at 1-609-845-3197 and ask for Janice. She will answer any question you might have and get you started on your Pen Pal journey. You can impact the life of an inmate who really needs to connect with someone and hear more about Christs’ love for them!
Please Find Me a Pen Pal
Thank you for the birthday greetings…”Happy Birthday from the Saints Prison Ministry”! It means more as I get older in age! And I always want you to mail me the New Creation – I read it every time and they have become a part of my life. It is part of my spiritual study to feel the joy of the faith that is inside of me. I love the Lord God and have Jesus Christ as my Savior. I would appreciate a pen pal for mail fellowship; someone to write about a relationship in God’s love. I get lonely with no to write about life on the outside of prison. Please find me a pen pal.
– John H., Polunsky Unit, Texas
by Tom Gibson, IL Saints Softball Coach
The calendar just rolled over to 2022, and our current Missionary-Athletes aren’t getting any younger. It is high time to start recruiting the next generation of MAs! We recently sent our scouting and talent acquisition team out to the church and park leagues across the nation to find some younger blood to whom we can hand the baton. Unfortunately, when we got there, we found empty softball fields and deserted church gyms because the younger generation isn’t playing rec sports; they’re all at home on the couch playing video games!
In order to reach the Xbox generation, we have quickly adjusted our strategy and are developing “Saints Prison Ministry: The Video Game.” We have no doubt it will be the hot ticket video game of 2022! Here is what is in store for the gamer:
It is Dangerous to go Alone…Take This!
Did I mention that we are all getting old at the same time? The best way to combat that is diet and exercise, BUT the second best way to combat the aging process is video game Power Ups! Just like your favorite Nintendo classics, we will have Power Ups that will boost performance and alertness over a short burst. They are the same 5-hour energy drinks that we already use during an early morning game, but we will think of a cool song to play after you drink them! We will also have a Power Up for our buses. It will be like the blue shell used in Mario Kart and it will help out while trying to navigate Atlanta’s Perimeter Highway or Philly’s Sure-kill Expressway!
One of the best features of the game is the ability to create and modify your favorite Saints player. This will make the game as realistic as you want or make some slight upgrades. Tim DiBenedetto hasn’t hit a triple since George Bush was in office… (no, the other George Bush!) But, thanks to the create-a-player, you can turn his speed up to 99 and watch him go! Gio Ortiz handles himself very well on the court but imagine if we could make a slight adjustment and make him 7’2”! The only drawback is that Butch Smith’s powered up character hits 70 home runs per season and is now wanting a $140M contract!
We are still working out the bugs…
…but our Princess is in another Castle The greatest game ever made was Super Mario Bros. 3. If you wish to disagree with me, please message me and I would be more than happy to convince you! Some of my favorite things about the game are the side quests and extra things you get to do while you make your way to defeat the evil Bowser. Our game will also include side quests; like finding a tire shop in the middle of Nowhere, IL, trying to uncover hidden Hugh Dwyer food items worth maximum points, surviving Hurricane Matthew during the 2016 South Carolina Crusade, or my personal favorite, a quest to find a place in South Florida that is open late at night and sells baseball shoes…big enough to fit 6’5” Don Conner!
With pre-order sales outpacing Minecraft and the new Legend of Zelda game, we are sure to have a generation that will be on fire about being part of the Saints Prison Ministry! Our next challenge will be teaching them to do things like hit, shoot free throws, not use their hands, and pretty much anything else to do with playing outside!
I have been meaning to write to you and let you know that you have touched me in a special way, even sometimes I tear up! I just want you to know I really appreciate you thinking of me every year. Often you are the only one I hear from, and that means a lot! I just wanted to take some time out to let you know this – please forgive me for not writing sooner. I love you all!
– Melton D., Thumb CF, Michigan
I would like to thank you for all the cards you have sent me over the years, they were very uplifting. I have received good news…I’ve been granted parole! I still have to wait 120 days for the process and approval from the higher-ups, but I’m going home! I still can’t believe that after being locked up for 41 years, I am going to be free. But I put my faith in God a long time ago and let Him handle it and He did! Once again, thank you for always being there for me.
– Markham A., CA Institute for Men, California
My name is Lance and I have always meant to say “thank you” for your cards, visits, and work. A long time ago I prayed really hard, reciting the 35th Psalm beforehand, I can honestly say God spoke back to me and I received the miracle of salvation. I’ve since lost everything these 16 years in prison. I know I’m on a list, but even so you remembered my birthday. When NO ONE was left to say anything encouraging to me, you guys did. Thank you.
– Lance B., Eastern CI, Maryland
Just a short note to say Thank You for the cards I’ve received. I tis always nice to be remembered, especially by Christian brothers and sisters. I’m doing pretty well on my end. I got involved with a logistics class and I get a certification for completing it. The certification is good for 5 years and I get out before then, so it should help me get a job (or better job) faster than many ex-cons I’ve heard from. Thank you for thinking of me, my friends. Take care of yourself and be blessed.
– Dale G., USP Terre Haute, Indiana
I am respectfully writing, in the name of Jesus and His love. Your ministry has sent me several birthday cards, but I have never written back until now. But God intends His people to team up to encourage each other as well. The apostle Paul urged the Thessalonians to encourage one another and build each other up (I Thess 5:11). God has put us – ministries like yours and people like me – into each other’s lives for support; we need each other to keep walking the path of life in Jesus. So, on behalf of all the many men and women behind bars, fences, and walls today…THANK YOU for your prayers, visits, services, and support. We don’t always acknowledge your thoughtfulness as we should, however I know many who deeply appreciate your genuine love in Christ.
– Jimmy A., DeSoto CI, Florida
My last letter to you said I wanted to go where God wanted me and do what He wanted me to do. Well, he answered, and I have been moved to SCI Mahanoy. I truly believe I am on a mission here because it is far more open than my previous prison was. Church services began again the end of August and I realize now how much I missed it! I also had the opportunity to go out to the Big Yard and they have started letting out more than just two dorms at a time. Things are getting better – as you can see I am on the Word Processor again in the Law Library! Maybe we’ll even get to see your basketball team again this winter!
– Marty D., SCI Mahanoy, Pennsylvania
Well, we are still on modified lockdown here but getting a little more movement lately. We are getting 90 minutes of rec time, 3 times each day now and we are allowed to walk to the chow hall and actually sit to eat the meals ( we were getting meals in our cells). It’s all been a good thing because it is great to be able to get outside and breathe the fresh air. We’re able to be out of our cells for various reasons from 6am to 9pm, except for count or an incident. So at least we aren’t just caged animals like we were for over a year. Thank you for remembering me; your Thinking of You card came at a great time. Peace and Love! – Name withheld, an inmate in the Federal Bureau of Prisons I wanted to let you know I appreciate your Birthday cards, thank you, I only have a few family members left so I only get a couple. So your cards are meaningful. Again Thank you.
– Greg D., SCI Camp Hill, FL