I’ve Gotta’ Go

by Frank Zeidler, Jr., Executive Director

This will likely be the last item you read from me this year. After 20 years on the staff of the Saints Prison Ministry, our Board of Trustees has graciously granted me a sabbatical. To be more accurate, they granted me a sabbatical more than a year ago, but God had other plans.

Late in 2019, as I was preparing for my time away from the ministry, Jimmy Cochran’s parents were involved in a horrific automobile accident – his father was taken by ambulance to a local hospital and his mother was airlifted to a Georgia trauma center. While it was not their fault, they paid a significant price for the other driver’s carelessness. Both parents endured lengthy hospital stays – in different hospitals – and didn’t see each other for months! The healthcare professionals then orchestrated time for them in the same rehab facility, until his father was released while mom stayed behind. At the same time Jimmy and his family were trying to tend to the needs of his parents, their daughter experienced month-long complications from her ongoing battle with a disease she has had since birth. This was not the time to ask Jimmy to take over as Acting Executive Director, so the sabbatical was delayed.

It was February before Jimmy started to get his head above water, so the Board and I discussed a spring timeframe. Those of you that know my wife and I personally are aware that she also has long-term health issues, some of which are exacerbated by cold weather. So, shifting the leave from winter to spring seemed to be a blessing in disguise; that is, until we actually got to spring. Yep, you guessed it – my sabbatical coincided directly with the arrival of our new friend, SARS-CoV-2! As prisons began to close for volunteers, everyone involved agreed that this was not the time for the Executive Director to head for the hills…and besides, the hills were closed! So, once again, we delayed the sabbatical.

The summer has been spent trying to navigate a previously uncharted mine field, with both medical and political pitfalls to overcome. Prisons postponed, rescheduled, and eventually cancelled our summer visits, making March 8th the last time a Saints team visited a prison (as of this newsletter printing). At the same time, we were tightening our belts at every turn in an effort to keep all six staff members working (yes, that’s right – everything you read about is done by six staffers and an army of volunteers!). We spent time managing, re- imagining, and reworking the softball schedules around the country and still processed the paperwork for 90-100 missionary-athletes. If the doors did open, we were ready at any time to walk through them! Even this time was not without its tense moments, as one of our staff members tested positive for the virus (completely recovered and back to work in a couple weeks), one staff member had just moved a parent into a Veterans long-term facility when the virus began its attack on retirement homes around the country, and we all mourned the passing of Leigh Ann’s father, who had been in declining health for some time.

Through all of this, God has been faithful – and those in whose hearts He has moved have responded with Spirit-led giving in spite of the lack of events or results that normally abound this time of year. As I write this, the ministry is just a couple weeks from the end of our fiscal year and all signs are that we will finish “in the black,” although it may be by about $1.27!

As we move into the fall, and with all pandemic related news now cloaked in political dialogue, no one knows what to expect next. Could the prisons open up to volunteers toward the end of the year? Maybe, but no one knows. Will the upcoming election cycle have an effect on how the pandemic is viewed? Maybe, but no one knows. Will our fall and winter sports find a foothold, even if it is a later season than usual? Maybe, but no one knows.

Here is what I do know: God has blessed this ministry with a tremendous staff, a team that understands what we’re up against and has pulled together to maintain a focus on our mission. God has also blessed this ministry with a dedicated group of godly men around the Board table, all of whom routinely inquire about the state of affairs and the condition of our people. Beyond that, God has further blessed this ministry with an amazing collection of volunteers – missionary-athletes, birthday card teams, prayer warriors, pen pals, and financial supporters – who stand at the ready to be used by Him, whenever and wherever the need arises.

With all of that in perspective, I’ve gotta’ go. We are 13 months past the Board determining that a sabbatical is in order, and to be transparent, I don’t disagree with them. Given the current climate, I have begun calling this my “extended time off with no place to go and nothing to do” – but I am looking forward to a time of refreshment, renewal, and personal growth.

The team that God has assembled – staff and Board alike – to oversee HIS ministry while I am gone is both qualified and capable. But my peace in stepping away during this unusual time is not found in their qualifications. My peace comes from knowing that they have embraced the mindset that you have heard me voice many times: this is God’s ministry. He is calling the shots, He is in control, and we are simply trying to follow where He takes us, without running ahead or lagging behind.

In the final months of 2020, I ask that you include these things in your prayers: that my time away will be fruitful despite the restrictions and challenges of the coronavirus, that the Board and staff will be listening for and hearing God’s voice clearly, that His people will continue to respond to the needs of SPM as they always have, and that when 2021 arrives we will look back on this year and say “To God be the Glory!”

A Touch of Green in a Sea of Gray

by Jimmy Cochran, Director of Team Operations

For most of 2020, we have been hit from all sides with bad news, terrible numbers and a virus which seems to be relentless in its attack on people around the globe. The coronavirus has taken this once beautiful and colorful world and covered it in a mire of negativity and painted it gray.

However, on August 24, 2020 the Lord dipped His paintbrush and dripped a bit of color on Canton, GA! The 2020 Saints Prison Ministry SE Golf Classic, sponsored once again by our partners at Real Momentum, took place at the beautiful Fairways of Canton and what a wonderful turnout we had for the event. Eighty-four golfers signed up to play, beating our previous high of 60 in 2017, and they were not disappointed. Magnolia Golf Group did a fantastic job with team pictures and played our 5-minute video shot by Liberty University on one of their giant electronic leaderboards, a new addition the event! Low scores were the norm, with the winning foursome shooting a 47 and taking home some terrific prizes. In addition to some fantastic golf, we were able to share how God is transforming lives behind bars and that no virus will stop the expansion of His Kingdom.

Overall, it was a great day as we were able to taste, for but a moment, some semblance of normalcy. The small bit of rain we had in the morning was not enough to dampen the spirits of those who came out to support the ministry. In the end, everyone was able to enjoy a great day on the course, helping in our efforts to share the gospel behind bars!

I Guess it’s not all Bad…

by Tom Gibson, IL Saints Softball Coach

Let’s face it, producing an article that pokes fun at prison ministry while trying to live through the Medieval Plague of 2020 is a really tough task. I mean, do I write another passive aggressive article about how the Northeastern guys drive, or yet another article about our bus with yet another secretly-coded message desperately pleading for anyone to come rescue me with their fleet of new reliable buses?

This year has been tough as our season was postponed, postponed again, postponed some more, and then eventually cancelled. We all miss sharing the Gospel in prison. We all miss the games and the competitive fellowship and comradery that we have among our teammates and the inmates. We miss talking about the stories that we hear from the men that we see and how some of them chose Jesus in their darkest hour. We miss the long bus rides and meals after the games. But here are some of the things that I haven’t missed in the slightest!

I HAVE NOT MISSED, Waking Up at 2:40 am

It is physically impossible to be in bed before 11 p.m. the night before a Saints prison visit. There is always a kid’s activity on a Friday night that will run late. There is always one part of your uniform that didn’t make it into the washing machine yet. The printer will run out of ink as you are printing your Gospel message the next day, resulting in a trip to Walmart. And, of course, there is always that elusive right-handed batting glove that is somewhere between your garage and diamond #2 at the local park. Of course, you are playing at Mayberry State Prison which is on the other side of the state and 4 hours off of the highway. Of course, they have requested that you arrive at 7 am. This will require meeting in the middle of the night with several other zombies who also left a batting glove at diamond #2 earlier in the week!

I HAVE NOT MISSED, Gas Station Food

Naturally, there isn’t a restaurant nearby Smallville State Prison so, of course, we will dine at the local Shell Gas Station. No, it’s not the nice one near the interstate with the Subway or Arby’s attached. It is the one in Middle-of-Nowhere, IL that has the four rolling hot dogs and the out of order fountain soda machine. There is always the gas station pizza option… but everyone is afraid to try that. There may be some local stuff like Farmer Jenkins’ Beef Jerky, or Junior’s Boiled Peanuts but this meal will most likely consist of Jack Links and a bag of Hostess frosted donuts.

I HAVE NOT MISSED, Prison Food

I take back all of the bad stuff I said about the gas station pizza…

I HAVE NOT MISSED, Getting Blown Out by a Prison All-Star Team

We have a pretty good record overall when we play against the inmate teams but sometimes you play a team of destiny. They got the notice about your August visit back in February and they have been doing a Rocky IV training montage-type practice every day since that Saints poster went up in the prison gym. They will recruit the guy who played AAA baseball and some guys who played in the NCAA tournament a while back as soon as they hear about this prison visit. This game is usually ugly. Your outfielders will either quit on the spot or go hide in the crowd. Your team will either leave the field humbled or ready to retire and join a basket weaving ministry.

Don’t get me wrong, I would be more than happy to get up early and eat some bad gas station food before playing against the prison all-stars tomorrow if asked – but those aren’t at the top of my list of things I missed the most about not going to prison in 2020!

Announcements

Virtual Celebration

On October 22, 20200 we hosted a virtual celebration, Manna in the Wilderness!

If you missed it, you can watch it now!

Click HERE to check it out!

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We must regretfully announce that the SPM softball season 2020 is officially cancelled. After previously announcing the cancellation of many crusades - and the softball seasons for IL, NJ, and PA – this message serves to inform everyone that all softball events still pending are now also cancelled.

We have been in touch with the DOC Volunteer Coordinators on a weekly basis since early July, and more recently have received counsel from a high-ranking DOC official that nothing is likely to change until at least October, leading us to this painful decision.

Thank you all for your patience, as well as your passion. We do not know what the future holds, except to say that we anticipate being “back in business” in 2021 and every prison we talked to is anxiously awaiting the day we can return. There may be new protocols in place by then, but there is no virus strong enough to stop the Gospel message from reaching those who need to hear it!