In the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables, Jean Valjean escapes from prison, undergoes a fundamental heart change, and builds a whole new life—but he cannot escape his identity as an ex-convict. In particular his prisoner number is branded indelibly upon his psyche. Legend has it Hugo chose Valjean’s number, 24601, to mark the date of his own conception. While this theory is unsubstantiated, it would certainly represent a truth which is theologically sound—for when we are conceived, we do take on a lifetime sentence. “Behold,” says the psalmist, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5, English Standard Version).
Hugo’s Valjean uses his great strength and takes on a new name to escape his past, but how do we escape our guilt and its punishment? We, too, need great strength and a new name: the power and the name of Christ. Jesus was sent “to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18b), and indeed “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). To the extent we are aware of the great deliverance we have received from the prison of sin, to such an extent will we identify with and have compassion upon those who are sinners like us and who in addition endure earthly incarceration.
As a not-for-profit publisher of Reformed materials, at Reformed Fellowship we seek to minister to those in prison primarily through the written word. Board members and other volunteers have corresponded with many prisoners over the years, mentoring them in the Reformed faith. We frequently receive requests from prisoners across the country for Reformed materials, and we are seeing an amazing increase in interest. We also see remarkable stories from inmates across the country.
Here is just one example: in December we received a letter from an inmate in California who found Reformed Fellowship through a gift from a local church of our book With Heart and Mouth by Rev. Danny Hyde. This man (J) recounts his journey to the Reformed faith, beginning from a time he was at rock bottom:
I had come to faith thru Joel Osteen 3 years earlier in county. I sought a god who would get me out of prison, fix my marriage, and restore my life. Nevermind the sin problem! That is until that day I found myself praying in tongues on my face. As I prayed, something just didn’t fit. The jibber jabber coming from my mouth didn’t seem to be anything more than a conscious effort to make sounds and feel “Christian” or closer to God. Suddenly, I began to repent for this folly, then I had a deep sense of my sin. So then I repented of that . . .
Our friend goes on to recount a gradual transfer from what he calls “TBN Christianity” to reading R. C. Sproul and A. W. Pink. “I came out changed,” he says. J has now requested more copies of With Heart and Mouth to share with fellow prisoners with whom he has a Bible study group, and we have begun sending him The Outlook. One of our board members has volunteered to correspond with J at his request.
While we rejoice in these opportunities to serve incarcerated brothers and sisters through our printed materials, we are also grateful to see the efforts of Reformed organizations such as Divine Hope and MINTS, which are physically present in prisons, teaching and instructing biblical truth and bringing hope to those in a dark place. We are building partnerships with these organizations to provide materials for the inmates with whom they are working. These efforts were first announced about a year ago, and we received funding for around fifty subscriptions. These have all been taken, and we now have opportunity to send The Outlook to up to three hundred more inmates. We are overwhelmed by the Lord’s blessing of this ministry, and we pray he will continue to open doors to bless many.
We are touched and blessed to see some of the fruit of prison ministry and to give you, our readers, some of this experience. So we are glad to give a brief update here of a recent conference titled “Finding Hope after the Hurts of Sexual Abuse,” sponsored by Divine Hope in October 2022. Please pray for another such conference which is scheduled to take place on April 14–16, 2023, with the theme of “Trust in God.”
Lori Dykstra served as on of the volunteers at the October conference and recounts these details.
“It was a very sobering experience from the moment we arrived. The massive buildings sit prominently in the middle of corn fields, but clearly identifiable by their tall, barbed wire fencing. With a strict dress code, the only things we were allowed to bring inside were our folders, a pen and our Bibles. After being cleared and checked in, we were huddled into a sally port with metal doors where we had to wait for one to shut us in before the next would open to allow admission inside . . . we reached the chapel where each of our meetings took place. There were always security guards present and it was expected we would go nowhere without permission from a prison appointed volunteer.
“Strict instructions were given: we were not allowed to have any physical contact, no handshakes, no hugs, no touch. Any exchange of items would be considered trafficking and could result in them being placed in ‘lock up’ or us not being allowed back in. The ‘offenders,’ as they are called, were quite aware of these rules as well and seemed almost a bit nervous to have us so close to them. As we left after our final meeting with them on Sunday morning, one admitted to me she felt a panic attack coming on as she entered the chapel that first evening, unsure of how to handle ‘so many normal people’ that she wasn’t usually allowed to be in contact with.
“Each woman’s name tag began with the word ‘offender’ before their name. It was obvious that these women have been labeled and come to accept the fact that they are ‘offenders.’ The bathrooms were labeled ‘public’ restrooms and ‘offender’ restrooms. This was a hard concept for me to grasp as these precious women were just like us in so many ways, yet they seemed to clearly grasp and accept the reality of this deep valley that was between us.
“Each meeting began with us standing and singing songs of praise and then worship. Several songs were taught which the women were able to sing along with by the end of the conference, including “Speak, O Lord” and “What a Day That Will Be!” To be part of this special group of women was a surreal experience. Their eyes closed, their hands raised, tears streaming down their cheeks as they sang out their praise . . . this will always be stamped in my mind. How easily we tend to write off those who have ‘messed up,’ especially those who have really messed up. I was convicted of the pride that easily swallows me up, of the time I waste consumed with matters that aren’t important, yet here these women gave their entire being to the Lord in worship.
“The first session, led by Terri Pols, was titled ‘Sexual Abuse Defined.’ While this session brought out many tears, it was also a place where the women came to see their story is relatable to people in the Bible. Some women said they were amazed to see how relevant Scripture is to their lives even down to the details of disgrace and shame experienced by women such as Tamar. It was difficult to hear the painful, shocking stories they shared with us of the abuse they had endured, of the mistakes they made. Many of them carry so much guilt for the drugs they abused for years, neglecting their children, and the loss of their families due to it. They didn’t make excuses for their sin, but many acknowledged they are where they need to be. One woman commented that the ‘Lord saved me from myself by placing me in prison, because this was the only place He could truly get my attention.’
“Saturday morning, I had the overwhelming but special privilege of leading a session entitled ‘Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Is This Truly Possible?’ It is difficult, no doubt impossible to understand the hurts each of these women carry, and to try to relate was next to impossible, so I spoke of Christ, of His suffering and death, of His ability to relate exactly to our hurt, of His understanding of all our guilt and shame, of looking to Him to see the perfect model of forgiveness. The women eagerly participated, always grateful and thanking us for sharing our time with them. Little did these women realize we were the ones who were truly blessed to experience the communion of saints with these sisters in prison.”
Such is the experience of one who volunteers to be an ambassador for Christ “from the outside.” What of those “on the inside”? What is the impact of this work for them? See these representative comments from inmates who attended the conference:
It was a hard and emotional weekend filled with many tears and feelings, but I am convinced that I was meant to hear every word of that weekend. Thank you for spending your precious time with us and bringing many lessons. Can’t wait for the next one.
I had the privilege of attending the conference on abuse. I came away knowing that while I may not have been sexually abused, I was verbally abused in 33 years of marriage . . . I also learned that my marriage was lacking the 3rd cord—God.
I loved the conference. I am making a class from the booklet Freedom from Guilt.
I have grown so much closer to God since I first encountered Divine Hope as a member of your 6-week course “Mere Christianity” [a course on the Heidelberg Catechism] as part of our PLUS program. I learned what catechism means and learned the doctrines of faith, and over these past several years have completed Bible studies on various topics which have helped me to be a better follower of Christ as I discovered how to actually APPLY Scripture in my everyday life.
Hearing the input from the various volunteers and their stories and perspectives also helps me to grow and knowing that you are praying for us really touches my heart and encourages me. You have all come in and shown us REAL agape love with no feelings that we are being judged, but rather that we are your sisters in Christ.
I have been incarcerated for almost 19 years and I love the Lord. I do not know what I would do if we did not have volunteers who give so much of themselves for us to spread the Good News. Divine Hope is a perfect example of the love of God and what it means to do it unto the least of these.
I never knew there was such a thing as a biblical counselor. After the conference I realized that’s what I want to do. . . . I want to help people through life and their situations and feelings with God’s Word.
As we read these comments from volunteers and inmates, we see how our identity in Christ unites us, while an identity focused upon our sin divides. How easy it is for each of us to focus upon our own sins—or the sins of others—to set ourselves apart. But Christ is the one who has broken down such walls, and he is the one who unites us. Even in a secular prison, divided by so many rules and circumstances, God’s people may come together as one. Surely this teaches us a lesson for our own lives as we look around at the various divisions we experience. Praise the Lord for the work of prison ministry! May he be glorified in all.
REMEMBER THOSE IN PRISON:
What can I do?
PRAY. Pray for these inmates and many others who are hungering and thirsting for the light of the gospel in their lives. Pray for the work of Divine Hope and MINTS ministering directly to these needs in the prisons where they are established. Pray for the work of Reformed Fellowship in distributing The Outlook and other materials to prisoners all over the country. Pray for the Reformed Fellowship board and others as they correspond with inmates who have questions and need mentors.
GIVE. Prayerfully consider a donation to a prison ministry; please specifically consider partnering with Reformed Fellowship to send Reformed materials free of charge to the incarcerated. We currently have opportunity to send The Outlook to as many as three hundred more inmates seeking to learn about the Reformed faith; this exciting opportunity represents a fundraising goal of eight thousand dollars. Donate at https://reformedfellowship.net/pages/donate or mail us a check. Please note “Prison Ministry” with your donation.
LEARN. Visit https://divinehope.net to learn more about Divine Hope Seminary. Visit https://www.mints.edu/seminary-in-prison to learn more about MINTS Seminary in Prison. Visit https://reformedfellowship.net/ to learn more about Reformed Fellowship.
GO. Volunteer in a prison ministry as geography allows. Volunteer to facilitate Bible studies. Consider volunteering for the next women’s conference in Rockville on April 14–16. Email Rev. Ken Anema at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how to volunteer in these or other ways through Divine Hope.
Mrs. Hope Staal holds a Bachelor of Music and an MS in Library Science; she serves Reformed Fellowship as General Manager and freelances as a choral director and vocal instructor. A full-time homemaker, Hope resides in Dorr, MI, with her family and is a member of Bethany URC in Wyoming, MI.