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!