Jesus: A Friend to Thieves

There are moments in Christian ministry when we are the recipients of our Lord’s special ministry to us. I preface my own such encounter with the Lord by referencing Matthew 25:39, “Lord, when did I see you in prison?”

God’s call to ministry came to me in an unusual way. A co-worker had pled guilty to being a pedophile and was waiting to begin his sentence. Our employer requested that he continue working in my area, maintaining the computer reliability of recently installed units. I agreed, along with most of my staff… with some hesitancy on my part. I had served in law enforcement earlier in my life and would have arrested him for what he did.

However, something thought-provoking happened that I did not expect. I had become a “friend of a leper” and faced some avoidance by others in the workplace. We learned that the man’s wife had not known about his deviant behavior. My wife, Linda, and I offered to accompany his wife as she visited him in county, and later state, facilities. In the process, I recognized God was making a specific call to me to serve in prison chaplaincy. I was fortunate and blessed to have a very helpful and understanding wife. I was also able to enroll in a Dutch Reformed Seminary close to home that had an evening M.Div. program, along with accomplishing my Lutheran studies under Pastor Chuck Ewan at Bunker Hill Lutheran Brethren Church.

My clinical pastoral field experience was at the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in Yardville, New Jersey. As part of my responsibilities I worked in the Administrative Segregation Unit known as the “jail within the jail.” It is a highly restrictive housing unit for a definite period of time for inappropriate behavior.

Access to this isolated location required a custody officer to escort me through several locked doors and up a stairwell. One of the custody officers in “Ad/Seg” would verify my access authorization and then escort me to sign in after frisking me again for any contraband. This area is a 24/7 lockdown except for individual use of a small exercise enclosure surrounded by walls topped with ribbon wire. I arrived at my destination. There was an unbelievable ear-piercing sound that greeted me from both sides of the cell block and I tried not to react to the vocabulary that was being used.

Part of my visitation plan was to provide Bibles, “Our Daily Bread” devotional and a bulletin handout that included a cartoon message from the “Gospel According to Peanuts,” along with Bible Crossword and Word Puzzles. The bulletin was appreciated and the inmates quickly realized that they would need a Bible to complete both the Bible Crossword and Word Puzzles. I would also listen to the individual young men as I went from cell to cell. Sometimes they would ask me to pray for them and their family members, but sometimes they would utter vulgarities or just tell me to leave them alone.

On one particular winter night I was a little tired after my regular workday in Trenton, and the drive to Yardville, N.J. seemed longer than usual. The inmate count in the “Ad/Seg” unit was about twenty out of a possible twenty-four occupancy. I was just finishing my last cell visitation with a Hispanic man about nineteen years old. I prayed with him and desperately attempted to remember all the members of his family to pray for, and their circumstances. I was just completing the prayer… when he grabbed my arm!

At first I thought he had some intent of assaulting me. (That does occur from time to time, including spitting or worse.) Instead he said to me, “Chaplain, you look like you had a rough day. Let me pray for you!” God transformed my day through this young man’s prayer. In spite of the noisy and ill-mannered environment of the cell block, I was a recipient of our Lord’s ministry to me through this young inmate. I became completely refreshed in this thought: “Lord, I have seen you in prison!”

My understanding of the ministry of prison chaplaincy took on an entirely different perspective that night. Any notion of my ministry became eclipsed by the presence of the ongoing ministry of Jesus at work, wherever our Lord sends us to serve him by serving others. So often we like to think that we are in control. In our various ministries there comes a moment for each of us when God reminds us that he is always in control.

At my graduation from seminary the president of the school quipped to me, “Rick, I understand you are going on from reform school to prison.” My short response was, “It’s God call! Amen.”

Rev. Fredric Freese serves as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church of Palatka, Florida.

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