Prison: A First-Timers Report
by John Wood on July 23rd, 2013

I wanted to take a moment to share the story of a first-timer’s trip into prison as part of the Encounter team. My prayer is that by getting a glimpse of what it looks like on the other side of the wall, you will be inspired to help with a prison ministry yourself or support one financially.

I woke up on my own around 4:30 AM Thursday morning. I really didn’t have to be awake until 6:00 AM but I was too excited to sleep I guess. I’d like to tell you that I was deep in prayer the moment I woke up but I believe I checked the Auburn message boards and just laid there thinking about the day ahead. By 7:00 I had told Amy, Caroline and Thomas goodbye and was on my way to meet the team outside of Birmingham. I want to stop here and say that my wife Amy was as much a part of this trip as I was. Her willingness to serve by keeping the kids without my help while I was gone was huge. The snack boxes she and Caroline put together for the team were also a nice treat.

The trip to Birmingham was relatively uneventful. We met at a house near McCalla and loaded up the very manly white minivan that Chris had rented for the trip. So to paint the picture of the trip out there for you, there were five dudes in a minivan. Sounds bad, but the trip was actually great. Of the other four guys that went on the trip, I knew Stephen and had met Chris once, but didn’t know Mitch or Darryl. Those guys welcomed me with open arms and we had a great time of fellowship on the way to Texas. Some of the deep theological topics discussed were Bachman Turner Overdrive, legalization of marijuana and Umbros.

We arrived in Winnsboro, Texas at the Fennell compound around 10 PM or so. I met Barry Strickland and John Fennell at that time. Barry is a part of New Wilderness Adventures and lives outside of Dallas and John has his ministry NEWCOR near Winnsboro. The Fennell’s had a spread of snacks laid out for us to eat on. When rooms were divvied up, Stephen and I decided we would stay in the shed that John had turned into a house recently for a man that lived across the street from him.  It doesn’t sound that glamorous, but it was a really cool spot.

Basically, a man was living across the street from John in a trailer that was caving in. John moved a very large shed from another location and made it into a house with a kitchen, two twins, a closet and bathroom so that the man could move from his trailer into the new place. Sadly, the man was diagnosed with cancer and died five weeks after moving in.

I slept hard that first night after traveling all day. I was disappointed to learn that I would have to take a cold shower Friday morning (more on this later). After I got dressed I went across the street to John’s. They had made a huge skillet full of sausage and eggs along with hot corn tortillas and hot sauce. It was a great way to start the day.

I was feeling pretty anxious and excited as we loaded up to head to the prison. For one, we were going to be going inside a prison. Two, I had to speak to the prisoners that evening on “The Poser”. We made the short drive to the prison. As we arrived I could see the chapel where we would be working. I also noticed a large wooden sign over the main entrance that said “You Can Make a Difference”. Indeed.

As you go in the main entrance they ask you to remove your shoes as they give you a pat down and check you with a metal detector. You then trade your driver’s license for a chaplain volunteer tag. After all of that, you are escorted into the main prison yard by a guard. As we walked out into the yard there was a line of about ten prisoners there that we said hello to on our way to the chapel.

Friday morning we had to go through training. I don’t mean chaplaincy training. I mean prison training. They cover literally everything from what to do if you are held hostage to “don’t fall in love with a prisoner”. The training was done by Chaplain Casey Miner. Chaplain Miner is a dynamic personality and through God’s help, the driving force behind the chaplaincy program at the prison. I enjoyed learning from him so much over the weekend. During training Chaplain Miner was asked about how he handles other religions within the unit. His answer was that he is completely accommodating to all religions within his wing. He said the result is that the prisoners start asking the question “Why does Chaplain Miner treat me so much better than my own pastor?” He talked about the dramatically improved recidivism rates that have come about through the implementation of programs and events like the one we were conducting. The bottom line is, in Texas and other states, the numbers do not lie. These programs are working.

After training we went out for lunch. We then came back to the prison to start the program. The prisoners arrived at 1:00 PM. There were 67 prisoners in attendance over the weekend. Each one of the guys has six months or less left on their sentence. As they came through a door they were greeted by several of us in a line. The prisoners all wore white along with a name tag that has their name and the word “OFFENDER” on it. Once they were all seated, Chaplain Miner went over some ground rules. Each prisoner was given a two-liter soft drink and a plastic cup. This was for them to consume throughout the weekend. He also told them that as they knew, outside of the chapel he is Chaplain Miner. For this weekend though, within the chapel they could call him Casey. Also, instead of the prisoners being known by their last name they would be going by their Christian name for the weekend. Each guy was given a name tag to put their first name on. They were then told that they could move their chair anywhere in the chapel they wanted to in order to be comfortable. Freedom.

I cannot do the material that was presented to the prisoners over the weekend justice in a blog post. However, I want to give you an idea of how it is presented and why it works differently than most anything these guys have been exposed to in the past. The first talks on Friday are all about having the guys take a look at themselves. We aren’t there to tell the guys that they have done no wrong in their life. For instance, my talk Friday night was on “The Poser”. This is basically the false self that you present to those around you. Those guys know all about this, but for many of us we have been posing so long that we don’t even realize it anymore. By the way, if you are reading this and think you don’t pose, think again.

I enjoyed being able to address the guys Friday night. I was thankful that the guys on our team encouraged me where I thought my talk fell short. Public speaking to a room full of prisoners was different than anything I had ever done before.  Another thing that I will mention about Friday night at the prison was how we started building relationships with the prisoners. Several of them came up to introduce themselves and talk. More on this later.

We got back to the Fennell compound Friday night where they had prepared vegetable lasagna which was outstanding. I didn’t linger too long before I was ready to go to bed. Friday had been a long day and I knew Saturday would be even longer since we were due to be in the chapel from 8 AM – 8 PM. When we walked into the “shed” we saw that the Fennell’s had changed our linens and put mints on our pillows. So we were getting the Ritz Carlton treatment even though the accommodations were a little out of the ordinary. This is just one of many examples of how the Fennell’s showed us love over the weekend.

Saturday morning came early. The Fennell’s had prepared enough biscuits for an army and a huge pan full of gravy and eggs. I’m pretty sure I had four biscuits with gravy. Yes, four.

We made it to the chapel a couple of minutes after the prisoners Saturday morning and some of them jokingly formed a line to greet us like we had done the day before. This really set the tone for what was to come on Saturday. I had a guy come up to me and tell me how much what I shared on Friday night had meant to him. This was very encouraging to me.

After a short worship time, we started off Saturday talking about the wound. We basically explained to these guys that there is a reason that they are the way they are. As John Eldredge says, for most men their wound comes from their father. Satan uses our wounds to confuse us and define us. I felt led to share about some of my own wounds, as did several others.

We then talked about healing. This is where the turning point was for me. These guys start to see that there is a reason they are the way they are and also that God wants to heal those wounds. There is a time where guys are able to say “It’s not my fault _______” and just call out things that have wounded them during their lives. Examples would be “It’s not my fault I never knew my father” or “It’s not my fault my father left me when I was a kid”. You can literally feel people being healed. These sessions were just incredible to me. Since I had gotten my planned speaking part out of the way I was able to settle in and truly experience the conference along with the prisoners. Another thing that is talked about on Saturday is the battle that they have ahead and that they are warriors. They are told that what was ahead of them would not be easy, but that it can be done.

At lunch on Saturday we brought in Subway for the prisoners. Compared to what these guys normally eat, this was like a filet. After lunch the guys watched a video talk on “Sonship”, which discusses God as your father. So just to recap, the guys have been talked to about who they are, why they are who they are, the healing that God wants to do in their lives and God as their father. See a pattern yet??

I want to mention that there are several breaks throughout each day where the prisoners are served cookies and chips. This was also a great time for them to talk to us and gave us an opportunity to build relationships with the guys. Without a doubt, the best part of the weekend for me was building relationships with the prisoners and encouraging them.

Saturday night we talked about women and relationships. We then had a round table discussion where Chris would ask us off the cuff questions about our marriages. It was basically like being on a Dr Phil show but in prison. We mainly discussed things that had worked in our marriages.

We left the prison a little after 8:00 PM. When we got back to the Fennell’s Saturday night they had prepared steak and vegetables for us. We also had birthday cake because it was John’s grandson’s first birthday. Saturday night, I had a heart to heart with Stephen. Not about the day but about what we should do about the fact that we had been taking cold showers since we got there. We located the breaker box and low and behold HOT WATER.  I crashed pretty hard again after such a long day.

Nobody had told us to be up early Sunday since we were meeting at the donut shop in town for breakfast. I was dripping wet when somebody banged on the door telling us it was time to go. So in about ten minutes or so we were dressed, packed and out the door. Thankfully I am light packer due to my business travels and backpacking trips.

Breakfast was great. We made it into the chapel before the prisoners this time. Some of Sunday’s topics were about fathering kids. These topics were very applicable to me and I enjoyed hearing what the men had to say. We talked about the battle to come and encouraged the men to guard their hearts on what they had learned over the weekend. There was another round table session at the end to answer any questions the men had.

As we dismissed, the men were given copies of “Wild at Heart”. Many of the guys brought their books by to have us “autograph” them. Now, I’m not going to lie. This was a little weird for me at first. But I realize that it was really not about our names but more about remembering this profound weekend in their lives. This is how I signed each book, “You are a mighty warrior! The battle begins today! Much Love, John Wood”

There is really one huge thing that I want anyone that is reading this report to understand. It does not take a seminary degree to be able to look a prisoner in the eye, wrap your arms around them and tell them that God loves them. Several of the guys really struggle with what they have done to their families. My message to them was the same thing that my Mother told me years ago when I was not all that far from where these guys are. “If you have asked for God’s forgiveness, he has forgiven you already. You need to learn to forgive yourself.” When you say that to someone with tats all over their bodies and gang affiliations and they look up at you with tears in their eyes, it is all worth it.I would highly encourage you to get involved in a prison ministry or to support one with a financial donation. These men will soon be sent on their way with a new pair of clothes, a check for $50 and a bus ticket. What they really need is hope. That is what we were there to give them.

The author of this article, John Wood,  volunteered for his first trip into a prison, his first time as an Encounter Prison Team Member.  I asked if he'd write this post to tell his story and ours.  He is  a devoted father and husband, a decent mini-van rider, a deep thinker, a great expositor on the intricacies of the "Poser", and a beloved son of the Father, and a powerful minister of God's unbridled love for his sons....especially to prisoners. (Chris Roe)

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Kay Roe Smith - July 23rd, 2013 at 3:40 PM
Very nicely done, John? I am especially glad to hear the entire workings of the weekend. Chris always shares with me about these trips, but this gave me a good vision on it all. Proud of all you guys! Love, Chris' Mom
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