Tag Archives: Inside Story

So, what have you been up to?

by Frank Zeidler, Executive Director

Silly question, right? You’ve been staying home, being careful, keeping your distance, and trying to figure out how to accessorize a mask. But for us, it isn’t such a silly question. What does an evangelical prison ministry do when the prisons close their collective doors?

The obvious answer is that we do have an incredible outreach that doesn’t require walking through a prison gate. You are well aware of the impact the SPM birthday card ministry, and that has not changed at all. The volunteers involved in signing and sending our birthday cards have had to adapt a little bit to the current circumstances, but they did not let the Covid precautions stop them from getting the cards out as scheduled.

However, given that we recently passed the one-year anniversary of our last in-prison ministry opportunity, the original question is very real; what has the staff of the ministry been doing? As a supporter of the ministry, I think you deserve an answer…even though you didn’t ask the question!

After spending the first six months of Covid-closures trying to salvage some form of 2020 softball season, it became apparent that we were not going to be entering a state or federal prison at all in 2020. Once that was clear, we determined to continue ministering without being able to go in person.

Our NE Lady Saints were the first team to pick up that mantle. They recorded a video that somewhat replicated a typical Lady Saints visit, shot from the perspective of an inmate. As with every visit, it included not only game action but also a Gospel message passionately delivered by Jill from her living room! I also have to give a special shout out to high school student Alex Spositi for using his editing talents to turn our VERY amateur video into something worthy of sending to prisons. And that is exactly what we did – in early 2021 we sent the finished product to 8 different women’s prisons in the NE region. Most we have been to in the past, but a few were added that have never invited our team. Maybe this will be the impetus for them to finally invite our Lady Saints to share the Gospel in their facility!

At the same time, the NJ Soccer team indicated they were not happy with having no ministry opportunities and indicated they wanted to do something for those men they would have seen during their 2020-21. Together we formulated a plan to write to every inmate who filled out a response card during the 2019-20 soccer season – 93 letters, signed by the whole team, sent to the seven prisons in which they ministered their last season. We anxiously anticipate the responses to come pouring in soon!

In March, the NJ basketball team and the men’s softball teams in GA took their turn recording and producing Virtual Visits. In taking this opportunity to the next level, we engaged a professional company to record and produce the NJ basketball event. As part of the agreement, they supplied us with the digital file for future use and 50 DVDs to be mailed to prisons all over DE, NJ, NY, and PA, as well as the prisons from the team’s 2020 crusade.

I am certain that you will agree with me that His sovereignty has been especially evident in the last 12 months, and I believe that God has sustained the Saints Prison Ministry through this pandemic because He has a purpose for us. Maybe there will be ministries that will choose not to go back inside, creating new opportunities for us.

Maybe God plans on opening doors in states we haven’t visited yet, or maybe He has something completely different in mind for us. With that in mind, we used this time to improve the infrastructure of the ministry. Our staff created a page on our website specifically for missionary-athletes (MAs). It is something we have discussed for many years and we finally had the time to invest in making it happen. Once we had a dedicated space for MAs, we focused on updating all of our prison clearance forms and making them “fillable” forms –meaning our almost 200 MAs can complete the forms right on the computer, then just print them out and sign them.

Every organization needs some form of structure and the Saints Prison Ministry is no different. Our protocols and policies had not been reviewed since 2006 so, in conjunction with the Board of Trustees, I took advantage of the extra hours to completely rewrite the SPM Employee Handbook. It was time well spent because we discovered that many HR issues of the 21st century – even in a non-profit, Christian ministry – were not addressed at all in 2006!

There are more housekeeping functions that we addressed as well, but I won’t bore you with those details. As you can see, the staff of the Saints Prison Ministry has kept busy caring for some aspects of the organization that were “back burnered” for a long time. Our organization, specifically Director of Team Operations Jimmy Cochran, maintained the relationships we have developed with prisons all over the country; and in some cases, grew those relationships to transcend individual prisons and reach state level. Most importantly, our teams and Directors sought – and found – ways to share the Gospel when Satan thought he had the upper hand!

God has blessed us far more than most of us anticipated a year ago. Not just sustained us, but blessed us: with sufficient finances, with determined volunteers, with passionate missionary-athletes, and with a resolute staff and Board. The verse I claimed when I entered full-time ministry in 2000 is even more applicable today:

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8,9

After what I experienced in the last 12 months, whatever He has for us next is okay with me!

Inside Story – But God…

This is not hyperbole: I never doubted that we would get back to ministering face-to-face inside prisons. Honestly, I could think of no other reason God sustained us for 13 mostly inactive months. However, “My ways are higher than your ways…” was never more evident than now!

To understand this requires a little historical perspective. The last pre-pandemic softball game played in a Saints uniform was on March 7, 2020 at Marion CI in Region 3 of Florida. Region 3 includes 9 men’s prisons: Avon Park, CFRC, DeSoto, Hardee, Lake, Marion, Polk, Sumter, and Zephyrhills. The recently completed Citrus Country 3 crusade was also to Region 3 of Florida. Now watch God work.

In 2020, I notified all 9 men’s prisons of the upcoming crusade. After much planning, we were set to go. But the schedule was changed by two last minute prison cancellations – one due to a Warden change and one due to a lockdown the Friday before we were to leave. We scrambled to fill those holes and the schedule was finalized on Monday, one day before we left on Tuesday! We ministered at 4 of those 9 men’s facilities – Sumter, Zephyrhills, Hardee, and Marion – and saw over 1,500 men in those yards.

Fast forward to March 2021. We found out that Florida is actively courting volunteers, so we leap at the opportunity. Our first contact was with the current Special Events Coordinator, who informs me a) she is new and still trying to understand the process, b) she doesn’t know who we are, and c) there is a problem with the computer system that she must sort out. God bless her, because she could have told me “try again next year” with all of those obstacles. But God put her in place for a reason. She worked with me, offered advice, and finally said “Just submit a proposal and I’ll try to get it approved.”

I submitted Polk CI because they were the first ones to contact me this year, and then added Hardee CI and Avon Park CI due to their proximity to Polk. I heard back a week later – everything we asked for was approved, and the plan was passed down to the three wardens for their response. Each warden replied to the message with a resounding “Yes”! We were shocked – but God wasn’t.

Hardee CI was a repeat from 2020, invited only due to proximity, but would you like to guess which two prisons had canceled at the last minute in 2020? Correct…Polk CI and Avon Park CI.

I could have listed any of the 9 prisons on the 2021 application. It certainly would have made sense to go back to the same 4 prisons from 2020, since we know they enjoyed our visit. But God had other plans and had already primed those prisons that blocked us in 2020 to be the ones to welcome us back. Reflecting on this, I was reminded of Psalm 118, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the LORD had done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

God had the Citrus Country 3 crusade planned since March of 2020 – and He did so as only He is able!

 

 

Inside Story

Sense of Call and Purpose

by Pastor Omar Fisher, Missionary Athlete

This has been a different kind of year with the Saints Prison Ministry considering that we have not been able to enter prisons in the Northeast since March 2020. This is also the year that I was supposed to be completing my internship with the Saints so that I could complete my Master of Art in Christian Leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary.

I have been involved with the Saints since 2003 when I joined the basketball team as a missionary athlete. I joined because at 26-years-old, I visited a friend of mine who was incarcerated at FMC-Lexington and on the flight back home to Philadelphia I prayed to the Lord to help me to do something to reach the incarcerated. It hurt my heart seeing grown men treated like first grade students as they were being told to line up and being told not to get too close to the family member who came to visit them. From that point on the Lord used me to minister to inmates and introducing them to freedom in the body of Christ.

I always enjoyed going into the prisons with the men and ministering to the incarcerated. I loved that we did not do it out of any religious obligation or even with the expectation of any monetary reimbursement, but simply because we loved the Lord and had a burden on our heart for the unsaved. The Bible calls us as followers of Jesus to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” in Matthew 28:19. Jesus also said the words, “…I was in prison and you came to me,” in reference to us showing love to our fellow man or woman. Those of us who go into the prison feel led to do so by the Lord.

Having had many wonderful experiences in the prison it was almost a no-brainer when choosing the Saints as my parachurch organization for the internship. This decision was made in the pandemic so the work that I thought I might be doing to prepare me for full-time ministry after I finished my seminary degree, was already not happening. But God blessed us with some creative solutions. I was able to help at a Saints golf fundraiser in New Jersey in September 2020. Men with masks on gathered and golfed and the Saints raised funds. I was able to engage in some engaging letters between myself and several inmates. I was able to see the affect of the Saints visit, birthday cards, and Bible studies on a number of inmates and to respond to their letters with answers to their questions about God, grieve with those who were grieving, encourage the ones who needed encouragement in the Lord, and celebrate with those who were celebrating. I was able to work on the creation of some training videos to teach new missionary athletes about delivering their testimony and the Gospel in the prisons during half-time presentations. I was blessed with an opportunity to minister at a homeless encampment in Philadelphia and I met one man there who I had also ministered to when he was incarcerated. I also was able to send some tracts to a fellow prison minister in Mozambique and he was willing to translate it into their local languages, Chewa and Portuguese, and use it for street ministry and for prison ministry.

I was also able to record three sermons and send it to Chaplain Reitz at the State Correctional Institute at Rockview which he played for the inmates on three different Sundays. He reported back that they were all well received. To all those opportunities I say, “God is good!” We may not have been able to do things the way we normally do them, but we have still been able to fulfill the Great Commission and show the love of the Lord by visiting the inmates in creative ways. We are not called to stop what we are doing just because of a pandemic. Our God is still Lord even during the pandemic and those of us who call ourselves Christians or disciples of Jesus have to use the gifts God has given us in creative ways to continue to do the work of the Lord.

I am reminded of Paul who was incarcerated in Rome but did not stop doing the ministry and in fact wrote a number of epistles and continued to be an ambassador for Jesus Christ, “…praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” (Ephesians 6:18-20)

We are in tricky times but that does not stop us for being ambassadors for Jesus Christ. I would encourage you all to continue to do the work of the Lord. Find creative ways to continue the do His will.

Getting Drenched for the Kingdom!

by Jeff Marthins, retired missionary-athlete and current Board President

The Saints Prison Ministry softball season 2020 was not quite the way I remember it in my playing days. You know, like when we actually played softball games all summer! But then again, 2020 was unlike any previous year too. It gave me occasion to look back at what I remembered about my playing days, and one of those things was… the weather.

Throughout the softball season and, I’m sure during any outdoor ministry events, the players usually huddle up in the morning before heading out to pray for, among other things, good weather. I could tell you of many days which offered uncertain weather conditions and we ended up playing games in dry conditions. God has answered our prayers many times regarding good weather. And sometimes He didn’t…

One of my first memories of playing in the rain was in Camp Hill, PA. Before the game under cloudy skies with the threat of rain, my teammate, Frank DeConcini, prayed. He closed his prayer with, “thank you, Lord, for holding off the rain.” As the words left his lips, the skies opened up! The Lord sent a drenching rain to the field, soaking everyone. We played in the rain, slipping, and sliding in the rain. Both inmates and players alike were laughing and joking. I recall watching pitcher Dave Storms sliding in what can only be described as a slip and slide exhibition!

Fast forward to South Carolina, on a crusade now referred to as the Palm-wet-to Crusade, as it rained almost every day. Arriving to each prison, the prison was curious if we would play in such conditions. Convinced that we would play in rain, the staff had a surprised look as they escorted us to the field. I recall using large brooms to push the water off the field in a squeegee manner. The Saints players and the inmates prepared the field for play side-by-side. In one particular game with a muddy infield, outfielder Walt Nesbitt rounded second and was sprinting towards third. The third base coach yelled, “down, down, down” signaling to Walt to slide to avoid getting tagged. Walt slid headfirst into third with a wave of mud resembling a log flume. The crowd erupted into cheers, joy, and laughter. The joke was on Walt as there was no play at third! Walt stood up with his uniform now completely brown and took a bow.

During the same Palm-wet-to crusade, at another prison, the field was full of water and nowhere for it to go. There was a puddle around second base. A runner on first had to run into right field, then turn left to make the move to second base. No one was called out for running out of the baseline! However, what I remember most was the large puddle between the pitcher’s mound and home plate. The water was roughly two inches deep and any ground ball hit there would simply stop instantly and wait to be retrieved. I remember pitcher Hugh Dwyer and myself splashing through the water to get to the ball multiple times.

Finally, a New Mexico Crusade memory. I know when you think of New Mexico you might think of dry desert-like conditions however, on this afternoon, it poured rain. The prison was surprised as we took to the field, but even we were looking for shelter anywhere that we could. I don’t recall what inning, but it became apparent that the idea of staying dry was no longer an option… so we just embraced the situation. Seeing that, the inmates also abandoned the pretense of trying to stay dry and we played the remaining innings out in the rain.

No one likes to get wet or much less soaked to the skin in wet uniforms but, understanding the purpose of ministry, it becomes more bearable. What about the inmates? Why would they endure it? We’ve watched them play in the rain with us many times. Some inmates were there just as spectators standing in the rain getting wet! For many prisons, the Saints coming is a huge, welcomed event. We may be only scheduled for one day a year… or even less frequent. The inmates look at the Saints’ visit as a break from their normal routine and a chance to forget the barbed wires for a while.

To play in the rain probably took many of us back to the days of our youth when nothing could stop a game. Inmates laughed and joked and played in the rain with joy and smiles. No one complained. Even the inmates who didn’t play stood in the rain – with laughter and joy – to watch this new version of water sports!

At the end of all these games, no one went inside; they all stayed to listen to the Gospel presentation. I don’t recall how many decisions took place each time, but I know that they listened – even while standing there soaking wet. The inmates we have met throughout the years certainly appreciate the time and sacrifices made “just to play them in softball” and it shows in how many have responded to the Gospel message.

And sometimes the sacrifice is simply sacrificing comfortable dry clothes for soaking wet ones.

Inside Story – No Games Doesn’t Mean No Blessings!

by Frank Zeidler, Jr., Executive Director

Compiling the content for this edition of the Insider Online was challenging to say the least. The ministry has not been inside a prison since Saturday, March 7th – basketball in Virginia and softball in Florida the same day. Since then you are aware of the happenings nationwide, so I have no need to recount them yet again. Instead, I ask your indulgence as I share a story with you that seems self-serving, but is really intended to demonstrate the goodness of God and His continued blessing on the Saints Prison Ministry.

At the beginning of this nationwide slow down (which led to a shut down of many businesses and ministries), I was forwarded two videos from ministries that were sharing their plight with the viewer. After viewing each of them, I could not help but feel the videos conveyed a sense of desperation. I’m certain this was not the intention of the producers, but the choice of imagery and language used did not sound optimistic. That observation set the course for our ministry.

I conveyed to both our Board and our staff that, despite facing a very uncertain summer season and possibly even losing all prison events the rest of the calendar year, we will not send out a message of desperation. If we believe “…my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19) on a personal level, then we must also believe that He will see His ministry through the difficult times as He sees fit. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills and if the Lord wants to use SPM in 2021, He will see that we are still here to serve.

As the staff set about conveying that message through intentional conversations, we saw very small, simple signs that we were on the right path. But the real validation – if you will let me be so bold – that our message was the message that God honors came late on a Friday afternoon. Jay Thatcher, Director of Ministry Relations, called me about 5:30pm to share that our ministry was to be the recipient of a $15,000 estate gift! The story can be hard to follow, but the short version is that a woman in another state passed away leaving no living heirs; she left instructions for a law firm to disperse her estate with the condition that all the money had to go to missions organizations; one of the attorneys on that team knew of our ministry through Jay’s friendship and communication, and she advocated on our behalf to be included on the list of organizations blessed by this woman’s final wishes!

This has been a challenging summer, to say the least, and we are all frustrated by the lack of opportunities to serve inside prison. But one of the most common phrases we hear in prison chapel services rings very true today: God is good…all the time; and all the time…God is good!

 

Batten Down the Hatches…There’s a Storm Coming!

by Frank Zeidler, Jr., Executive Director

Crusades are among the most exciting things about the Saints Prison Ministry. Among the missionary-athletes, besides visiting states to which they’ve never been, we often experience “firsts” – a first plane ride, a first ferry ride, a first time playing an alternate sport due to weather, or a first foray into a regional culinary experience.

The inmates find it hard to understand why a team full of men – with families, jobs, and church responsibilities – would put all that aside to travel thousands of miles, just to spend a few hours with them. But occasionally we find we are the only outside team willing to “go to the trouble,” making for such a unique experience that the prisoners talk about it for months!

For our supporters – including you reading this – we have ample evidence that communicating crusade experiences and results underlines your belief in what God can do through this ministry.

In preparing for the Central Florida 2020 crusade (results and details on page X), a fourth reason to know how exciting crusades are was reinforced for me – Satan works overtime when we are preparing for something great.

We began planning this crusade in September 2019. By mid-January, the system for attaining clearance in FL had come to a screeching halt. We reapplied, the Program Director was replaced, the prisons couldn’t commit without DOC approval…despite our best efforts nothing was moving forward. The next few weeks were spent on the phones and on our knees. For a trip scheduled to depart on March 3rd, for which we initially applied in 2019, we were finally granted approval on February 21st. The background checks still had to be done, even though paperwork was submitted much earlier, and we were finally cleared and confirmed on February 25th – just one week before we planned to leave! Oh, but the enemy was just getting started…

On March 1st, two days before departure, three different missionary-athletes contacted the trip leader to communicate potential problems. Not just obstacles, but serious, “I can’t go” problems. The first was a sudden dental problem causing so much pain the man couldn’t focus on his job and even had trouble sleeping. The second man was suffering from job-related stress to the level that he did not think he was spiritually fit to be ministering to others, and the third was the most serious. His wife collapsed at church and was being admitted to the hospital for a couple days of testing.

This abridged version of the experience doesn’t really do it justice, but I’m on a word count and I want to get to the purpose of this article. You see, I am not writing this to evoke sympathy or garner attention for our efforts. My goal is to demonstrate for you the lengths to which Satan will go to dissuade our MAs and discourage our staff.

He cannot tolerate knowing thousands of men and women are touched every year by the invitations we accept to visit areas of the country where we don’t have a standing team. He is infuriated by knowing that in FY19 alone, our crusade teams saw 500 professions of faith in Jesus Christ and they distributed almost 6,000 Gospels of John! And he will go to any length to try to stop our army – the athletes on the front lines backed by all our supporters praying each day of a crusade – from effectively introducing those behind prison walls to the one who can and will change their lives.

Despite all the fantastic results we report, the beautiful artwork elsewhere in this newsletter, and the touching letters we receive almost daily from inmates, I implore you to never forget that the spiritual warfare is very real. There are 11 crusades planned for this year and while we may not share every skirmish or battle, you should recognize that they occur regularly. When you review the crusade schedule on the back page, please begin praying for those crusades well in advance… because Satan is certainly not waiting until the last minute to plan his attacks!

 

Announcements

After over a year without visitors, we have begun to see movement within many state DOC’s regarding visitation. While we are not classified as being a part of inmate visitation, it shows that they are beginning to relax restrictions to the point where they are letting visitors which bodes well for us.

Currently, Florida is the only state in the union that is accepting volunteers and hot on the heels of our most recent crusade in April, it is my pleasure to announce that we are headed back in June! The dates for the crusade are June 23-27. Click here for more information on how to get involved!

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Text-to-Give!

Text-to-give is possibly the most convenient way to support the Saints Prison Ministry – and we have it in place now! Yes, SPM is providing one more way for our faithful supporters to continue donating, even while on the run! It just doesn’t get any easier than texting a single number to a pre-assigned phone number.

Visit our Donate page to learn more!