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

God’s Got This!

As the impact of the novel coronavirus Covid-19 continues to unfold before our eyes, I keep hearing the same voice in the back of my head.  A former teammate of mine, and a friend to many in the Saints family, offers the same deeply held belief every time the ministry (or he personally) must face a difficult situation… “God’s got this!”

As a child of the King, that is our reality; and those words bring comfort and peace in a plethora of situations.  Yes, this virus is nasty. Yes, we must exercise caution and be part of the solution, not the problem.  Yes, the situation is unprecedented for most of us.  But none of this changes the fact that “God’s got this”.

As I have reminded you of this before, my chief concern as the Director is guiding this ministry as God is leading it; never to force my agenda or ideas, but diligently trying not to lag behind His plans either”.  I am more committed to that than ever, and through this “crisis” I have felt God’s Spirit guiding our staff and Board at every turn.

Recently, the prisons have begun closing their doors to visitors and volunteers.  As news came out that state after state was taking this necessary step, our staff took the initiative to contact the prisons where we had softball games already scheduled.  As a result of taking this action, we were able to shift the opening of our softball season back from April 25th to June 4th.  Will the doors be open by June 4th?  I have no idea.  But clearly the Spirit was leading this decision, as evidenced by this email received from a Recreation Supervisor in IL:

Thank you for reaching out to us to reschedule.  You are the only one that has so far, and I think most are just waiting to see what happens.  Look forward to seeing you guys again sometime this summer”

Or this phone message from a Chaplain in Delaware:

“Thank you for taking the time to call me.  I just assumed we would lose the games because I didn’t think rescheduling would be an option with how busy you guys always are.”

Given the uncertainty of the next few weeks and months, it is important that you know we continue to serve those behind bars as much as we are able.  The other aspects of our ministry (birthday cards, follow up discipleship, fall scheduling, etc.) go on as always.  We have taken necessary steps to be ready for mandatory work-from-home announcements and our Board has reviewed our budget for potential modifications should the current financial uncertainty become a prolonged situation.

As partners with us in reaching men and women behind bars, you may rest assured the Saints Prison Ministry maintains committed to our mission and we value our partnership as much as ever.   For understandable reasons we will have no personal interaction with any of you soon, but there are two things you can do to continue working with us. First, include the inmates we serve in your prayers.  In grim times we all suffer from tunnel vision a little bit, so I’m going to suggest a way to be intentional about this.  Think back over the stories you’ve heard or articles you’ve read and come up with one item: a crusade, a prison name, a Missionary-Athlete’s name, a program like Birthday Cards or the Glove Exchange, maybe even an inmate’s name.  Make that single item the focus of your prayers for the ministry over the next few weeks.  Thank God for His providence and pray for His direction.

Second, if you are able, please make your regular gifts online instead of mailing in a check.  Obviously, we want to make supporting this work as easy as possible; if you are not comfortable online feel free to continue to use the US mail.  But in the interest of caution, the less mail our staff handles at this time the better.  Who knows – you may find you like it!

“God’s got this” – and He has all along.  It is the greatest comfort I can offer you and at the same time the only comfort any of us should need.

Serving Him gladly,

 

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