by Dr. Jay R. Thatcher, Director of Ministry Relations
I believe God wants Christians to go to Hell!
Do I have your attention? By “Hell,” I am referring to places on earth that are dangerous, dark, and were people are living in despair. Christians were never called to bunker-down and to live in fear. The Holy Spirit is given to Christians to send us out in confidence and courage, to share God’s love and carry the Gospel to people who are living in hellish places on earth.
During the first week of March each year, I attend a Pastoral Prayer Summit at Harvey Cedar’s Bible Conference Center in Long Beach Island, NJ. This year, on Thursday morning I traveled and ministered with our Saints Prison Ministry Basketball team on a three-day Crusade, returning on Saturday Evening. This initial retreat to seek God’s face in prayer and worship at this conference is a divine Heaven-like experience. When I left for the Basketball Crusade, it was to intentionally enter places where our brothers behind bars are experiencing a Hell-like experience on earth. I have a confession to make, I really enjoy my Heaven-like Harvey Cedars experience; but I am passionate about going to Hell with a team of missionary athletes in order to experience God’s presence and power as Jesus seeks to save those who are lost.
As the Director of Ministry Relations, I experience the behind-scenes efforts of Jimmy Cochran and Frank Zeidler as they both use their expertise in effectively overcoming obstacles that prevent us from entering the prisons. But sometimes expertise doesn’t explain it. For example, the first prison visit on Thursday was canceled, two days prior, due to the prison being on lockdown for up to one to two weeks. The one thing you learn early as a Saints missionary athlete is when you here “lockdown” the chances of getting in a prison are 0%. So do not ask me to explain how we played a game and shared the Gospel to a group of inmates on Thursday afternoon, while the rest of the prison was on lockdown.
Parker Cotton, a reporter from a Virginia newspaper, gained permission and access to see the Saints Prison Ministry in action on Thursday during our lock-down game. This was the first time Parker was ever in prison. He was amazed at how the Saints methodically dismantled our younger and more athletic opponents with incredible team play. His comment highlights the core of our ministry’s effectiveness. We gain the respect of the inmates prior to our half-time Gospel presentation by how we play team ball and show zero signs of being intimated by the surroundings.
One of the main Biblical passages that the Holy Spirit has used in my life to guide me to go into the hellish places on earth is Matthew 25:31-46 “…when I was in prison you came to visit me …” Going on mission has been an opportunity to see and hear the presence of Jesus in the other. So when “Q”, an eleven-year veteran on the team, says “When I see you [the inmates], I see myself” during his halftime testimony, it touches me deeply in my soul. Even as I type this my eyes fill up with tears. To experience this moment – and then to follow that with the opportunity to share the Gospel – is life changing to me. I really cannot explain how showing respect, love, and then sharing the Truth (Jesus) in a hellish place transforms us.
Friday morning began by traveling two-hours to our first prison visit of the day. I was concerned walking into the facility about our team’s ability to play at a high-level because of the intensity of the game the prior day and the stiffness from our travels. My concerns were completely eliminated when we walked into the packed gym… and the inmate team members gave us a standing ovation! Chills run through my body just recalling this moment in time. The hospitality shown by that gesture created an electric environment for the game and the Gospel presentation.
One of the tensions on the trip was that we were scheduled to play three games on Friday. The second facility that we were visiting did not have much seating for spectators, so we negotiated with the Recreation Staff to play two separate teams – back to back – in order to see more men. Looking back, it is easy to see the hand of God at work because our Saturday game got canceled due to a prison going on lockdown due to the Flu. So, in a twenty-four-hour time we played four games, and God maximized our time and our team’s ability to see as many men as possible!
The Friday afternoon games quite honestly exhausted our team. One of the unique things that happened during these games was the team introductions over the PA System. When the other teams were introduced, our Saints MAs formed a tunnel for each of the inmates to run through and receive high-fives from us. This gesture created laughter and brought a sense of fun to the event.
The last highlight I want to share is our time of team devotions we had during our hotel stay. Kevin Vaughn, devotion leader, has played with the Saints since 1996. He was a First Team All-American at Cairn University and currently teaches at Norfolk Christian School in Virginia. Since his move a few years ago Kevin cannot participate in the basketball teams’ season because of the obvious distance. The one thing I can say about Kevin’s game is that he makes everyone he plays with better. Yet it was not his play that truly bonded the team, but rather his leadership and Spirit during our time of devotion. We truly drew closer to Jesus and each other during our devotional time and it was reflected on the court during our games and in the hearts of our brothers behind bars that received the Gospel message.
As we wisely bunker down – as individuals and as a nation – to fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus, it is my hope that the Holy Spirit continues to stir up the passion of our missionary-athletes and the generosity of our supporters. Why? So, when this season of uncertainty passes and the prison doors are again open to volunteers, we are renewed and ready to go back into prison to share the only remedy for a sin sick world… Jesus!