By Nikki Riley
In August 2018 Pastor R.D. Fowler was asked, “Would you consider allowing men from the Community Corrections Center of the Nebraska Penitentiary System to come to your church on Saturdays for Bible study and to do work on your building and grounds? Would you further be willing to feed these men lunch? Would you go even further and have these men attend your Sunday School and worship services on Sundays? And feed them lunch on Sundays?”
Pastor R.D. Fowler answered, “YES!” and the blessings began!
Members of Bethel Baptist Church, Lincoln, Neb., embraced these men, welcoming them as family. Many of their parents, children and girlfriends join them for worship and lunch. Before this ministry Bethel’s average worship attendance was 45-50. Now it is 68-70.
For a few hours these inmates get to experience the normalcy of warm handshakes, hugs and home-cooked meals. Two former inmates, an inmate’s mother and one of the Bible teachers have joined the church. These new members are already bringing unsaved friends to church with them.
Who are these men? They are men who are within one year of their prison release dates. They have served with good behavior and have work-release jobs during the week. They are either already Christians or have been recommended for the Bible study by Christian inmates who trust them. They must each be approved first by the ministry coordinator, George Darlington, then approved by Pastor R.D. Fowler and finally by their prison supervisor. As attendees are paroled or quit coming, others may be approved up to 20 men at a time.
Speaking for the men, George Darlington said, “The men are excited to give back for the way our local church is ministering to them and families with ‘issues’.”
But more than this, their smiles, handshakes and appreciation for our loving acceptance makes everyone’s hearts glad.
What do Bethel members do weekly for the men and their families? Bethel’s building is open for their use for Bible study led by a team of Bible teachers from several churches. Bible teachers include a business owner, a physician, a retired football coach and a retail sales person.
The men must be transported by people who have attended a certification class and passed a federal background check. Three Bethel members have been approved.
Sometimes Bethel rents a van for the day to transport the men. The men are approved to be out from 8:30 a.m. to noon and miss the prison lunch hour. So Bethel members provide lunch on both Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes fixings are provided which the men cook themselves. They enjoy barbecuing! Members also started bringing the men doughnuts and cookies, etc., for a morning snack.
How is this ministry financed? Members of the church and family members of the inmates sign up to provide meals usually at their own expense. However, upon learning about this ministry from a member of Bethel, a nursing home congregation in Palm Grove, Fla., who regularly tithe and give their tithes to missions causes, voted to send Bethel a monthly offering for this ministry. This money has been used in three ways:
- To reimburse families who want to provide meals but can’t afford it on their own
- To rent a van when necessary
- And to provide supplies for the work the men do.
What has prepared Bethel members to embrace this ministry? Several members of Bethel either have worked or are working in the prison system — as a teacher, a guard, a counselor, chaplain and Bible teacher.
“Bethel has a missions heart,” said Nikki Riley, WMU director. “This missions heart has been evident all the years that I have been attending.”
Bethel’s budget includes 17 percent for missions causes, including the Cooperative Program and Heartland Church Network. Missions education for children has been consistent over the years and many members have ministries in the community. Bethel members understand God’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20.”
How can your church get involved? Pray for Bethel members and the inmates as they get nervous as they get close to their release dates. “Will I make it on the outside?” they ask themselves, they ask God and they ask us! They need your prayers.
Pray that Bethel members will not grow weary in well doing. Learn more about this type of ministry by contacting Pastor R.D. Fowler at email@example.com
Send a financial gift for the ministry to Bethel Baptist Church, 1401 S. 77th St., Lincoln, NE 68506.
Nikki Riley is president of Kansas-Nebraska Woman’s Missionary Union.