A little over a year ago I wrote about my involvement in prison ministry. The point was to stress the importance of taking on new challenges as an part of building a satisfying retirement. That article is the one included in the 65 Things to Do When You Retire book that I posted about a few days ago. It is too easy to get into a routine and never really explore all we may be capable of doing.
That particular post has been one of the most viewed on this blog. I'm not sure whether readers were reacting to the specific story I told, or found the idea of pushing against our self-imposed boundaries meaningful. But, whatever the case, that article, along with a follow up one a few months later, has shown an interest in the topic.
I'd like to bring you up-to-date on where my involvement with prison ministry has gone since the last posts, especially after a decision I made a few weeks ago. Until now I have been involved in writing several inmates on a regular basis, as well as acting as a one-on-one mentor to other men after their release.
This mentoring is a rather intensive, personal relationship with one guy at a time that lasts for at least six months. We have telephone contact several times a week and personal time together at least once every seven days. I help the man adjust to life outside prison in any way I can, including learning to budget and spend his money, staying employed, developing his walk with God, and handling anger or self-esteem issues. I am available 24/7 for guidance and help when he feels he may be on the path back to jail. It is a rewarding and humbling experience to help someone in that way.
The Next Step
Last month I was asked by one of the fellows at Along Side Ministries to consider a major step up in my participation. Would I consider traveling to one or more of the prisons in the state, on a regular basis, to act as a mentor to a fellow who was still incarcerated? That would mean I would have to go through a screening and background check by the state. I'd have to be fingerprinted, undergo a urine test, have a badge made with my photograph, and agree to rather strict rules inside a prison facility.
After thinking and praying about it, plus asking Betty for her opinion, I agreed. At least initially, that meant a once-a-month round trip of over 400 miles of driving to a prison in northwest Arizona. I would be assigned one inmate as a mentee and spend an hour with him during these visits. I might also be called on to interview other fellows who were interested in learning more about Along Side Ministries. There was a possibility of adding additional monthly trips to facilities closer to Phoenix, but still involving 5 or more hours for each commitment.
A Long Commute
After getting approval and my badge from the state department of corrections I made my first trip last week. As I expected it took my volunteer work to a much deeper level. The prison I visit is large: over 3,000 inmates are housed. The main exercise yard is huge, probably 3 football fields, filled with hundreds of men in orange jumpsuits exercising, jogging, walking and talking, or simply sitting and staring at the activity. A few times a day every inmate must return to his cell to be counted, so the times I have for visiting are rather restricted.
After going through various checkpoints, removing everything in my pockets, my belt and shoes (sounds like plane travel!), I and the two other fellows from the ministry I was traveling with made it to the first series of interviews and visits. One of the reasons for making the trip was to decide if one inmate was right for our program upon his release this summer. After at least 40 minutes of questions and conversations, we determined he was the type of man who would benefit from the type of environment Along Side Ministries provides.
The decision to accept him sealed my schedule for the next 12 months because I agreed to be his mentor. That meant weekly letters between us starting now and once-a-month trips to spend some time with him in person inside the prison, It meant a minimum of 6 months after his release being the man who would walk with him and support him in his transition back to a society that makes being an ex-prisoner very difficult.
But Wait, There's More
On the drive back to Phoenix I was also asked to pay a visit to a fellow who is in the Along Side program but in a facility even farther away: a 5 hour drive each way. He has had no relatives or family visits for several years and has not had a mentor. I said yes only when I was assured that wasn't going to be a once a month jaunt.
What started out as an occasional letter to a fellow I'd probably never meet, and certainly never visit inside prison, has taken on a life of its own. I found just letter-writing wasn't enough, so i agreed to mentor fellows once they were released. Now, I am spending full days traveling all over the state to visit with men inside the jails while continuing the letter writing and mentoring duties.
I would never have envisioned me being part of this type of ministry. As the first post mentioned, my concept of inmates was the same as most of society: damaged goods who got what they deserved. But, my eyes and heart have been opened. To a man, they admit their guilt and failings. But, each is a human being who is attempting to turn his life around and stop repeating the mistakes of the past. If I can do anything to help each guy in that process I must do so. It isn't an option, my faith demands it of me.
I would love to talk with anyone who wants to know more about prison ministry. If that is where your heart lies, I can't think of anything more rewarding and meaningful you could do.
But, there are countless other ways for us to use our skills, talents, and personalities to help others who are less fortunate. A satisfying retirement not just about us and our families. It is about caring enough to make someone else's life just a little bit better. What are you waiting for?