Tag Archives: Crusade

Inside Story

Florida…Again?

If you have been paying attention to the updates we send via newsletter, email, or letters included with your gift receipt you are probably hoping to read anything but “Florida” at this point. So…let’s talk about Florida!

You have read about Florida the most because they are obviously the most “open” state right now. I will not turn this into a political diatribe or medical analysis, so let’s just stick with that statement of fact – they are open. That statement alone has created immense opportunities for SPM on two fronts – the visible and the unseen.

The visible portion refers to all the information you have read thus far in 2021, but there are a few connections you probably couldn’t make on your own. The first is the extent to which we have ministered in Florida. There are 57 prisons in Florida (50 major institutions and seven private contract facilities). Unless you have been keeping a scorecard, you might be pleasantly surprised to know that we have ministered, or are scheduled in October and November, in 26 FL prisons – almost half the inmates in Florida were exposed to the Gospel through Saints Prison Ministry in 2021! In addition, we geographically covered the entire state in one year, which is no small feat!

The unseen portion of these opportunities involves the process of scheduling any ministry event in Florida. Without the boring details, FL has developed a system that vets every ministry or church that wishes to provide programming or services to weed out those who may only be trying to placate their own egos or pad their stats. The system includes six standards, of which the Saints Prison Ministry covers three, and the application for any event must go through the Central Office in Tallahassee before the prisons can even schedule any program.

This process was filled with landmines for SPM and for a few years we have struggled to gain any traction in addressing those challenges, mostly because we were only applying once a year. However, in 2021 two things happened: the state appointed a prison chaplain to head this Office of Special Events and we applied multiple times, in some cases only weeks apart! Having served many years in multiple prisons, the chaplain was very familiar with the challenges of scheduling events but is a strong advocate for volunteer programming. She believes that volunteers are not only desirable but necessary to fulfill the mission of the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC), which is Inspiring Success by Transforming One Life at a Time. Because of this, we quickly developed a working relationship that would allow us to focus on the challenges of the process.

Because SPM was applying so frequently, the chaplain was able to see the issues involved and worked with her supervisor to address each hurdle as it arose. She was equally willing to suggest a new approach as she was to dismiss that approach if it proved unproductive. Because of her passion and flexibility, we have seen tremendous strides in the process and the working relationship between SPM and the FDC.

Six crusades to Florida in any other year would be absurd; this year it made all the sense in the world!

 

It’s Not All Crusades

You have read quite a bit about crusades this year. Even in this newsletter we devoted a page to updating you on the details and results of the summer’s activity. But as excited as we are to be back on the field in Florida and Ohio, it’s not ALL about crusades.

While the prisons in the Northeast are still not open to large volunteer groups, Georgia did open their doors to us. The decision on protocols and group size was left to each warden, but we have already seen both of our men’s teams active in facilities local to them. The SE Lady Saints are also scheduled through the end of October, but their first visit was canceled by the prison due to a Covid flare-up involving a couple officers, which left them shorthanded. Please continue to pray for the prisons everywhere to open their doors to volunteers, especially in the Northeast. All our fall/winter sports are conducted out of the NJ office, so right now we are unsure if we will see any activity before 2022 in those states.

 

Crusade Season 2021

In any given year, the Saints Prison Ministry conducts 8-10 crusades – but obviously 2021 hasn’t been “any” year! However, we did see open doors this summer and we walked through every one of them. Preparing for each opportunity was pressure-packed due to time constraints, yet every time the Lord delivered passionate missionary-athletes, enthusiastic inmates, and administrations that welcomed us warmly.

In April, our team answered the invitations from Central Florida – the first events since March 2020! We visited three prisons, in which we ministered to five different populations, and our team preached the Gospel to almost 400 men. We saw 23 professions of faith in Jesus Christ and handed out 737 Gospels of John!

In late June we opted to return to the very same area of Florida, based on the overwhelming response to our April visit. We returned to one of the prisons from our April trip, added three other prisons that invited us and, cumulatively, seven different populations came out to watch us play.

Although attendance was lighter than it had been previously, God still worked through our MAs to draw 10 men to a personal relationship with him. We also distributed 439 Gospels in these four prisons.

Just four weeks later we gathered our team together again, this time in the northern part of Florida. This trip involved 6 prisons, including the first-ever scheduled kickball game in Saints history! More than 450 inmates came out to interact with our team and God once again blessed our efforts. 40 men made the decision to follow Jesus and we distributed 501 Gospels of John in just four days on the ground!

Finally, in early August, we answered a call outside of Florida! Three prisons in Ohio extended an invitation to the Saints, and our ministry team in Huntington, WV was happy to answer the bell. Over a four-day weekend, 66 inmates added their names to the Lamb’s Book of Life and 443 men each took a Gospel of John back to their cell with them.

One hundred thirty-nine prisoners found freedom in the summer of 2021. More than 2,000 lonely souls can discover the peace and joy found only in the Good News of the Gospel they were handed. Don’t let anyone suggest to you the summer of 2021 was wasted by a virus!

Click here for behind the scenes photos!

 

A Story of Courage

By Frank Zeidler, Jr., Executive Director

Courage can be demonstrated in many ways, and it seems most people have their own definition. Most of those definitions would bear some resemblance to this: the strength or bravery to do something in the face of danger or difficulty. The tenacles of that definition stretch many directions; the danger could be physical, emotional, or psychological while the level of difficulty can vary depending on skills, aptitude, or capacity.

In early March, our Director of Team Operations, Jimmy Cochran, stumbled across a tweet from the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) stating that, for the first time since the COVID pandemic shut down the FDC, they were looking for volunteers to begin programming. Not reluctantly admitting volunteers, not finally accepting volunteers…they were actively seeking out volunteers to resume programming for the inmate population!

This was not “just another announcement” – this was courageous. At the time, Gov. DeSantis was well ahead of the curve in charting Florida’s path to recovery, with no regard for how the rest of the country viewed him. FDC Secretary, Mark S. Inch followed the Governor’s lead equally courageously. So, while the Departments of Corrections in most states were just beginning to plan the method for in-person family visitation; Secretary Inch had already addressed that issue and was now ready to return to providing the volunteer programming that FDC values so highly! In the face of national skepticism, potential ridicule, and the risk of a virus outbreak that challenged his credibility and leadership, Secretary Inch determined the FDC would pursue volunteers!

By any reasonable definition, Secretary Mark S. Inch demonstrated courage in the face of national scrutiny by placing the best interests of the inmates above his own career comfort.

The Saints Prison Ministry responded to the announcement immediately. While it typically takes six weeks to build a crusade, this one had to be ready in less than four weeks. However, one aspect of this preparation stands out – the people involved.

In an effort to streamline the process, the ministry opted to limit the roster to MAs who already have a Florida approval. This approach limited the pool of available participants, yet 14 missionary-athletes responded positively, and none took longer than 72 hours to join the crusade team!

Leadership, supporters, and our missionary-athletes only cared about one thing – God opened the door, it was time to walk through it. Not one of the men on the team asked about Covid protocols, positive cases in prisons, or what type of mask to wear – they just said “Yes!”

Fast forward a month to mid-crusade. It was at that time that we learned two interesting details of our trip. The Saints Prison Ministry was the first “volunteer outdoor event” the state of Florida hosted post-pandemic AND the Saints Prison Ministry was the first “large volunteer group” welcomed back by the FDC post-pandemic.

Courage is indeed defined in a variety of ways, but biblical courage is more easily defined. The apostle Paul sums it up this way, “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31, NIV). In Joshua 1:9, the Lord uses these words “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” (NIV). Using those verses as a barometer, the Saints Prison Ministry demonstrated biblical courage, from the moment of the first phone call to the last out of the last game played. Everyone involved laid claim to the verses in Joshua and Romans without hesitation.

Secretary Mark S. Inch would probably deflect any notion that he showed courage in moving the FDC forward. I know everyone involved in planning, supporting, or conducting that crusade team most certainly would – they were just doing what they felt called to do.

Apparently, courage is only evident when you are looking in the rearview mirror!

Short-Term Missions Opportunities

We are all familiar with the term, and many of our churches are currently active in missions around the world. The Saints Prison Ministry has embraced the concept of these short-term trips for long-term impact and is actively seeking churches to partner with in this area.

Perhaps your church is planning to resume mission trips when access becomes available. But even then, there are likely men in the church that simply are not interested in teaching VBS or painting a church on the mission field. They want to serve, but the opportunities just don’t match their skills and gifting. What if that same opportunity included playing sports instead?

For the last few years, SPM has partnered with three different churches to reach inmates with the Gospel in areas that our current schedule cannot accommodate. These churches have collectively reached thousands with the Gospel, seen hundreds come to saving faith in Jesus Christ, and found fulfillment in serving the Lord with the talents He gave them!

Right now, the state of Florida is wide open to our ministry, and others will soon follow, so there is a great opportunity for your church softball or basketball team to come under the Saints umbrella and make an impact for the Kingdom. Doing something they already do for “fun,” the church can join with the Saints Prison Ministry and send a team to one of four regions of Florida, to minister to inmates who are simply waiting for someone to remember they are still there!

If your church would like to join us in 2021 – using athletics to reach this unreached people group – contact Frank Zeidler, Executive Director, at [email protected] to get the ball rolling!

Virginia 2020 Crusade

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!

 

 

Announcements

October Crusades

The fields in Florida continue to be “white unto harvest,” and the prison administrations continue to invite us at an unprecedented pace!

October 21-24, a softball team of mostly NJ and PA missionary athletes will descend on the northeast part of FL.

Join us in praying for this exciting opportunity!

Hot Topics

Due to the prison systems in the NE Region remaining closed to volunteers, we have come to the tough decision to cancel the seasons for the NJ and PA softball teams. We continue to stay in touch with our contacts in each state and hope to hear better news as we move into the Fall.