“I was in prison, and ye came unto me”

Correctional Chaplains Gerald Key and Andrew Vander Wall are both members of the East Paris Christian Reformed Church. In this article, Chaplain Key tells of their challenging prison ministry and says also that both he and Chaplain Vander Wall are available to speak for societies, Sunday Schools, and other groups to tell about their work.

The church of Jeslls Christ has an unfinished task. Jesus commanded His church to bear witness of Him to all men (Acts 1:8), to disciple all people (Matt. 28:19–20), and to succor those in need, especially the brethren. Fulfillment of these commands is beyond the capability of a single congregation, any particular denomination, or a single aspect of the Christian ministry. Yet the body of Christ, the whole church, has within the resources to accomplish what Christ has commanded.

We would like to share with you a few glimpses of the Correctional Chaplain, or as some prefer, the Institutional Chaplain. Would you believe that one of our churches has two laymen as full-time chaplains in the jail and prison ministry? They are under the sponsorship of The Forgotten Man Mission of Grand Rapids, Michigan, which seeks to provide chaplains for the jails and prisons in the State of Michigan. These two men are members of the East Paris Christian Reformed Church. Chaplain Andrew Vander Wall works in the Kent County Jail, with follow-up work at Jackson Prison. I work in the Kalamazoo and Van Buren County jails and also do follow-up work with the men sent to Jackson Prison who want further understanding in the Word.

The primary concern of the chaplain is ministering to the inmates. He also serves their families, the institution’s staff, and the community. The first and most important task of the Christian Correctional Chaplain is to communicate the gospel as a servant of Jesus Christ.

The Chaplain’s concern for the whole man will cause him to become involved in many areas of endeavor besides his religious duties; such as, the inmate’s personal and family needs and problems, and his physical needs and problems. He seeks, with God’s leading, in all the inmate’s needs and concerns, to pOint him to the Light of the World: the Peace which passeth all understanding. So the Correctional Chaplain deals with people in trouble, serious trouble. He will do much counseling, and teaching of Bible Classes, using Bible Courses to get the men and women interested in understanding and studying the Word. He seeks to give a Bible to each inmate who wants one, and is willing to read it.

I am wondering at this point, if we can learn something from the inmate. We give them a choice of the “King James Version” or “The Way,” and in most cases within a week or ten days the inmate who took “The Way,” will ask to have a “Bible,” referring, of course, to the “King James Version.”

There is an urgency that the Chaplain faces in the local jail. Many are incarcerated for only a short period of time, perhaps less than one month, and most not over 90 days. So it is important to initiate early contact.

The Chaplain’s ministry will be to people with varied backgrounds; educationally, socially, economically, religiously, and morally speaking. He deals frequently with people with exceptional and severe problems. Often much of his ministry must be conducted in very distracting environments.

I believe that some of the inmates are sent to jail in God’s Providence, so the Chaplain can point out to them that Jesus is Lord; not their drugs, dope, other people’s property, drink, self, money, etc. God stops them, and they have 24 hours a day to analyze their lives, and where their goals in life are. The Chaplain at this point is often used of God to point the inmate to the only comfort in life and in death. God has stripped the inmate of everything, and he sees his need for Salvation, the gift of the Father in His Son Jesus Christ.

Here we see the power of Satan at work, too. He (the Devil) at times lets the inmate claim to have religion in order to impress the Judge that he is now a Christian. This is often referred to as “Jail-House Religion,” only to be used for the inmate‘s good, and not a real Conversion. So the Chaplain must ever be alert so that he is not being used by the inmate.

The Chaplain needs to be a man of God, called to his ministry, for he is often being tested and tried by the inmates. He should fellowship with God through prayer, and in the Word, so he will be filled with the Spirit to know the will of God in dealing with these men and women.

Where do you as church and members come into the picture of the Jail Ministry? These inmates are members of the community, and we are told to go into highways and byways (side-streets), and compel them to come in. When an inmate shows a real desire to change, or becomes a Christian while incarcerated, you, as a church, should welcome him into your fellowship; and, as a living member, you should seek to be to him a friend that “sticks closer than a brother.” If that inmate is not accepted by you or your church, and he goes back to his old gang, what can you expect from him as a citizen in your community?

What are you and your church doing with the call from many local jails, “Come over and help us”? Are you beginning with your neighbor, or doesn’t he or she need the gospel? Doors are opening. Workers are needed. If you can’t work, you can pray for this often difficult and trying ministry. Perhaps the Lord has blessed you, so that you are wilting to underwrite the cost of several Bibles, so that each inmate may have his own.

What lies ahead fol’ the Correctional Chaplaincy? This century has seen the development of a number of new religions. Some of these now have a consider· able number of adherents among the incarcerated; in some cases, the new religion exists, almost exclusively among prisoners (e.g., The Church of the New Song). As each group seeks to demand of the government “their rights” to have a Chaplain representing their church, the government may give up sponsoring (underwriting) Chaplains. Then the church should be ready to take lip the task so often neglected up to now. Is the Lord preparing us for the challenging task of ministering to our neighbors incarcerated in our local correctional institutions? Pray that the Lord of the Harvest may send forth laborers, and a membership which will, with material blessings which God gives, support such a ministry.

Chaplain Andrew Vander Wall and I will be most happy to speak to your groups, societies, Sunday School, etc., on the Prison Ministry. Brethren, pray for us. “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.”