I like going to jail. I like telling people that I go to jail. Especially girls, ones who know me a little but still not that well. On the 2014 World Cup missions outreach in Brazil, there was a med student from Malaysia. Over the two weeks of outreach, she and I became friends, more or less, and have traded Facebook messages periodically ever since. One Sunday a few months ago, after spending the afternoon with the incarcerated men, I casually told her that I had just gotten out of jail. Imagine her surprise. Her response was fairly typical. It usually looks like “WHAT?” or “WHY??” or “IS THERE SOMETHING YOU NEED TO TELL ME???” Then, of course, I have to tell them my real reason for being there, and they are generally greatly relieved.
It occurred to me that I am the third generation of my family to participate in and lead the Sunday services at the Berkshire County Jail and House of Corrections. My grandfather on my Mom’s side went in regularly while he served as an elder at Grace Church, and my Dad has been going in now for almost 20 years.
I can remember my first time, about 10 years ago. How nervous I felt following my Dad past the series of heavy metal doors that slide shut with a bang, down the corridor, past central command, and finally into the chapel room. I was proud of my Dad as I watched him interact with the men in their orange and blue jumpsuits, making small talk, learning their names, fielding their questions, and delivering a message. A couple years later, the nerves returned in full force when it was finally my turn to address the men. My stomach was in knots; my muscles were tense. What would I say? What message could I bring that would be both Biblical and relevant to these kinds of men? How would they respond? When it was finally all over and my captive audience broke out in a round of applause, I almost melted in relief.
The experience is different now. I’ve given many messages and have gone in on my own several times. I still get nervous and uptight, but thankfully, I’m nowhere near the nervous wreck I was on that first day. If I’m going to be honest, I must say I don’t necessarily look forward to going into the jail. The last Sunday of each month approaches and I am reminded that I need come up with a message. It takes time. It takes effort. Saturday evening arrives, and I still only have a foggy idea, nothing on paper. Then, all of a sudden, I think of everything that I’ve wanted to do all week that I haven’t gotten around to doing. And all those things are more appealing than sitting down with a notepad and thinking hard about a scripture passage and how to make it into a message that the men in jail can relate to. It takes prayer too, lots of it. Then it’s Sunday. I was up too late the night before. Up too early in the morning. Church. I’m tired. The sun is shining; do I really want to spend all afternoon in a windowless jail? I’d rather be on my bicycle, or on the slackline, or kicking a soccer ball, or sleeping. Wow, I can’t wait for this to be over, then I can have another cycle of 3 or 4 free Sundays. But it’s time to go. ID check, then past the same heavy metal doors, the corridor, central command, into the chapel room. The men start to file in for the first service. They are not yet sentenced. Orange jumpsuits. Some swagger in with big smiles and shake my hand. They tell me they are happy to see me, and ask about my most recent trips. Others shuffle in, expressionless, and plop down in the back. One last silent prayer, usually something like, “Dear God, I have no idea how I’m going to do this, please help.” Then it’s go time.
I can’t count how many times I have gone in feeling overtired and underprepared. And yet something changes with that last prayer. My heart is beating faster, I’m not sleepy anymore. We’re reading the scripture passage and the men are engaged with the message. The night before, I was looking at my notes thinking, “How will I possibly get a full-length message out of this?” Now I’m eyeing the clock thinking, “I wish I had more time!” What before was only raw commitment is now enthusiasm and joy. This is God’s Word. We are sharing the Gospel. Then it’s all over. Sometimes they have questions or prayer requests. We close in prayer and the guards come and take the men back to their pods. I’m energetic now, almost wound up even. The process repeats, but this time with men who have been already sentenced. Blue jumpsuits. At the end, I find myself wishing we could have gone longer. Or that I could come back next week. Or that I could do a series of messages! Every time, before I go in, I wish I didn’t have to go. Every time afterwards, I can’t think of anything else I would have rather done.
There are other questions to be asked. What am I doing this for? Is it really for the sake of the Gospel or do I just like the attention and affirmation? Am I truly invested in these men or am I just using this to sharpen my public speaking skills for a more profitable opportunity later? And the original question never goes away. What can I say that will be both Biblical and beneficial?
It is helpful to remember that all of the men who attend the Sunday services are there because they want to be. They could be watching football, working out, or doing whatever, but God has put in their hearts a desire to hear His Word opened before them. It is also helpful to remember that God loves these men, and He will see Himself glorified, and make Himself known to these men accordingly. He will not bring them to chapel just to waste their time, even when the one giving the message is feeling desperately unenthused or unprepared. It is equally important to remember that the only significant difference between me and the men in orange and blue is my relationship with Jesus Christ.
I’m thankful for my grandfather and others at Grace Church who have been a part of the jail ministry in the past. I’m thankful for those who have joined us in the present, like Bob Kirkman, Dave Fairfield, and Paul Denzel, whose faithful participation and enthusiasm is always an encouragement. I would encourage anyone interested to go ahead and take the required orientation and join us some Sunday. You won’t have to give the message the first time. You are welcome to just meet the men, observe, and support with prayer. We had good numbers today, the room was pretty packed, but I’m sure we can find room for one more.
God loves the men in the jail. They are real people with real lives. They need the Good News of the Gospel. It is my privilege to share the Gospel with them. I never want to go in, yet once I’m there, there is no place I’d rather be. I love sharing the Gospel. I like going to jail.
by Ian Bridgman