Click below for the full print edition!
by Frank Zeidler, Jr., Executive Director
“I have loved you,” begins God’s message of unequivocal love for Israel (Malachi 1: 2). Israel challenged God and demanded evidence. In response, God offered a history lesson of love:
“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.”
God’s harsh reminder demonstrates His love is shown in what He does…and what He withholds.
God still loves His children today. A novel virus shut the world down for over a year. SPM endured thirteen months of inactivity. No results to report, no news to break. No in-person ministry for this ministry. God’s love might be questioned.
There were no teams to organize and no logistics to prepare a team. Then an invitation to return to action came. The phone was answered. A team was ready to go in 4 weeks. How? How does a ministry focused on evangelizing inmates survive and then spring into action after thirteen months of being unable to carry out their mission? Just as in Malachi, “I have loved you” was God’s reply.
God’s people were faithful throughout the summer of 2020 in anticipation of restarting the softball ministry activity. God’s love was evident when SPM closed the 2020 fiscal year, at the end of September, in the black! However, a challenge loomed. There would be no fall or winter sports, so how would SPM stay afloat?
The challenge was daunting; “I have loved you,” God responded. In November of 2020 a letter from an attorney arrived stating SPM was named in an estate. Not only was God blessing the ministry with a lump sum, but it would to be the largest single gift the ministry has ever received. Naturally, these things take time, but knowing help was on the way afforded a measure of comfort and security. That could be the end of the story – but God wasn’t done.
It would have been easy to say, “thanks to the estate of a supporter, SPM will survive the Covid shutdown and be ready for 2021 when the call comes.” That response, though apparently true, would discount a continuing reliance on God’s simple message; “I have loved you.”
God didn’t stop demonstrating His love with a promissory note from a lawyer about a legacy. The 2020 end-of-year appeal letter – at a time when many were being hurt financially – brought one of the best responses… EVER. Going into 2021 monthly donors and supporting churches never missed a beat in maintaining pre-Covid levels of support. SPM qualified for a payroll protection loan – which was forgiven. A church that annually conducts a crusade under the SPM umbrella opted to “prepay” for their next trip because they thought cash flow problems would exist. These all were reminders that God said, “I have loved you.”
What seemed like a life raft in the form of an estate legacy gave a great level of comfort to facing the ongoing expenses of the ministry. But God had something else in mind – He wanted to show His love is expressed in many ways. He’s not only the God who comforts, He is the God who provides.
“I have loved you,” God clearly confirmed. This is God’s work and so reliance on God must be central. He knew maintaining the ministry would be stressful, given what was looming. He sent a promise, in the form of the estate gift, to relieve that anxiety; then showed His love through more ordinary means. He had an “I love you” purpose for the legacy beyond affording comfort: putting trust in this generous gift wasn’t the right place to trust. God’s love is the place to put our trust.
Pay attention now as the picture comes into focus…that legacy gift has not yet been received by the ministry! Due to the backup in the court systems, the will got tied up in probate court. It is settled and the gift is coming – but not until after God decisively demonstrated His love in sustaining and blessing SPM throughout 2021.
Israel, in Malachi’s day, would have looked at the circumstances during this difficult time and said, “Let’s close the doors. God doesn’t love us.” Thirteen months and not one inmate reached for Christ, not one presentation of the Gospel to lost sinners, would by our human thoughts end this work of God. Yet God spoke clearly through every partner of the Saints Prison Ministry, He said through you, your prayers and support, “I have loved you!”
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!
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.
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!