Sunday, April 08, 2007

A Day in Maximum Security

I have the privilege of pastoring Gus and Anita Gonzalez and their three children in Grace Baptist Church. They have been part of the Grace family for twelve years. For eighteen years Gus and Anita have been faithfully involved in ministering to inmates serving in various state prisons throughout Florida. Under the name, Riverside Prison Ministry, Gus has travelled almost weekly to state correctional institutes to preach the Gospel of grace.

Last Saturday five of us from Grace joined Gus, Anita, and supporters from other churches on the inside of South Bay Correctional Institute, a privately operated maximum security prison in south Florida. Gus has had a ministry there for ten years. Members of our church prepared meals for the 150 men (out of 1861 who are incarcerated there) who attended the day-long celebration of Riverside's 18th anniversary.

This was not my first experience in a state prison, so I may have been a little better prepared for the intimidating process of being searched and then escorted through security gates and down corridors with bullet-proof guard stations and electronically locked doors. Still, the experience is sobering. When we got to the room designated as the "chapel" at around 8:30 AM, we were greeted by 15o men who were enthusiastically singing Christian songs in Spanish. We waded through the sea of smiling, singing men all dressd in prison blues.

The singing was led by 8-10 inmates and accompanied by a saxophone, keyboard, drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, bongos, accordian and various tambourines, all played with vigor. When Gus took the microphone he was warmly greeted by the men, with some coming up to hug him and shouting their greetings. He explained the plans for the day, which included singing, preaching, Bible studies, testimonies and a homemade meal.

I had the privilege of leading a Bible study for English speakers. We looked at the disciples' prayer in Acts 4:23-31. What does it reveal about their thoughts of God? It shows that they believed that He is absolutely sovereign: in creation (24), in providence (25-26), in redemption (27-28) and in our lives right now (29-30). Like everything else that happened that day, the men responded very graciously. It was obvious that many of them have spent hours reading and studying God's Word.

Later, after an official count and lunch, we heard testimonies from several who have been incarcerated the longest. Most told of coming to Christ after reaching prison. Charles described how Christ saved him six months after beginning his sentence. Now, 23 years later, with a smile on his face and tears in his eyes, he speaks of the Lord's faithfulness across all those years. One young man was my former next-door neighbor. Ivan's family moved away over 10 years ago when he was just a kid who daily would play with my children. He told me that he learned the books of the New Testament at one of our Vacation Bible Schools. He promised to come to contact Anita and come to church when he gets out, which he hopes is soon.

A few of the outside guests shared their testimonies, including Don from our church and then Gus. I had heard his story before, but inside the walls of that prison with bars and razor wire in view, it took on a new poignancy. He had been a wealthy man whose riches came by running drugs into Miami. On one of his last planned boat runs from the Bahamas, a storm knocked his vessel off course and into the waiting arms of agents of the DEA. He was arrested, introduced to Christians and while awaiting trial was gloriously converted to Jesus Christ. He said to those men, many of whom had never heard his story before, "I praise God for that storm and for being arrested because God used it give me the Gospel and save me." Over the next several years as he served his time, was transferred to various prisons and finally was released to a forgiving, longsuffering wife and small daughter, the Lord convinced him to spend the rest of his life preaching the Gospel to those in prison. He does so very effectively.

The day's activities closed with my message from Isaiah 53 on what the cross means to God. It was a simple sermon on the substitutionary atonement of Christ and was interpreted into Spanish. Some men were bored, others chatted and joked back and forth. But most listened. Some listened "enthusiastically:" clapping, shouting "Amen" and "Hallelujah" and various other forms of verbal affirmation. One brother on the front row helped out on occasion with comments like, "I like that" and "I like where this is going." I sensed the Lord's help.

At 4 PM the men had to report for another count. Before we dispersed 4 men said that the Lord had saved them that day. Many expressed their appreciation and asked for prayer as well as promised to pray for us. I left very tired but very grateful for the experience. The Gospel is spreading in prisons through the faithful labors of men and women like Gus and Anita Gonzalez. Men who are locked up are finding real liberty in Christ. Those who have been sentenced to spend the rest of their natural lives behind bars live with hope and joy in the Gospel.

A maximum security prison is a sad place--a testimony to our fallen world and reminder that things are not the way that they are supposed to be. But, through the faithful and Spirit-owned ministry of God's Word, it can also become a place that testifies to the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

9 comments:

Timmy said...

Thank you Tom for sharing this! When I read this, I kept think of what the writer of Hebrews wrote when he said, "Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body" (Heb. 13:3).

It could be said that our brothers and sisters in prison are the most forgotten people in our country. I say with sorrow and shame that I have not thought much of my brothers in prison, much less to the extent that I felt "with them" in prison.

When I was a high school kid in our local church, our youth minister bailed out of the ministry though he stayed on staff assuming the position. I began desperately looking for someone to lead us, to disciple us, to teach us. You would think that some young, good-looking, cool guy would come along go-tee and all and invest his life in us. Yet God had other plans.

A man named Gene Eudy accepted the pleas of me and other students to invest his life in us. He didn't exactly fit the mold of a "youth minister" per se. You see, he was a 60 year old man whose wife had been bed-ridden since 1979, and his full-time responsibilities were to love her, bathe her, cook dinner for her, and provide for her for the past 15+ years. Not only that, he was a prison minister for the past 30 years.

A year after I graduated high school, Mr. Eudy went to be with Jesus. He died having a heart attack while preaching the gospel - in prison - doing what he loved to do.

When I look back on my life, I find myself with tear-stained eyes and a joy-filled heart because of the influence of this prison minister who invested his life in me.

If you get the opportunity, please communicate to Mr. and Mrs. Gus and Anita how grateful I am for what they do. I pray God helps me remember those in prison and realize that doing it to the least of them is my God-given privilege (Matt. 25:36).

Timmy Brister

GUNNY said...

"This was not my first experience in a state prison ..."

Uh ... what were you in for?

; )

I'm taking this as confirmation that Tom will one day stand on His right.

Great reminder of what a ministry that can be.

Thanks!

Tom said...

Timmy:

Hebrews 13:3 was brought back to my mind throughout the day. It was humbling to see the joy, hope and love of those brothers behind bars. It was also tragic to hear how many of them had no family or friends visiting them with any regularity. Some of them never have visitors, besides Gus, Anita and those they take with them. I will pass along your comments to the Gonzalez family.

Tom said...

Gunny:

Boy, I do remember the first time! It was in Deer Lodge, Montana. I was 20 years old and went in to preach with an experienced pastor I was serving for the summer of 1977. By comparison, it makes South Bay look like a Hilton. Dark, dank. I remember being impressed by the fact that no one I spoke to in there had any trouble believing he was a sinner. I didn't understand things as fully as I do now, but even then I was beginning to wonder why so people--at least those on the outside--cringed at the notion that they were sinful.

Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it!

Tom Bryant said...

When I was first saved, we went once a month to a local jail. I led a guy to the Lord who had already been convicted and was waiting transfer to a state prison. He had no Bible so I gave him mine. When I came back the next month, Iasked about him and they said he had gone and the only article he had taken with him was the Bible.

Last year in Guatemala we did a service in a jail that was run by the prisoners. The believers in that prison were strong and vibrant.

Like with Timmy, I was reminded of that same passage in Matthew.

Praise the Lord for your ministry there.

wayner said...

Sorry this is off topic. I asked for permission from Dr. Ascol. Does anyone know of a church in the Evansville, Indiana area that I can safely recommend to my sister and brother-in-law?

BTW I did check the Founder friendly churches on the site.

Thanks

Caddiechaplain said...

Tom,
As a young student at Moody Bible Insitute in the 60's, my practical Christian Work assignment (PCW) was to preach and sing at Cook County Jail and Statesville Maximum Security Prison in Joilet (Richard Speck was an inmate at that time). I was 18 and was scared to death every week we went. It wasn't until the immates started saying how glad they were that we were coming each week that I finally began to relax and enjoy the experience.
I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. Glad you got to go. Go back again bro!

Samuel J Bell III said...

This is a wonderfull story, but what about the gards out there is any one reaching them for the Lord. I plan to start a mission to the gards in my home town soon. I hope to have support from my local church in that endeavor. I was once a gard and I know for a fact there are plenty of lost gards. Plus they tend to have no one to turn to in dealing with what they go through out there.
well till next time
SOLAS

J.D. Rector said...

Tom: Thank you for sharing this story. We all needed to be reminded that there are those in prison that are "... the least of these." We should not forget our brothers and sisters here. Thanks again!