Prison ministries offer unconditional love, spiritual freedom

When an inmate in the Florida prison system talks about being angry, feeling abandoned, losing hope and wondering if life is worth it, Barry Shields can do more than give an understanding, supportive nod.

That’s because, in his words, “I have been a guest of the state of Florida.”

Handwritten letter
Gail Brundage of Seminole UMC in Pinellas County organized a prison pen pals program. Stating that "we've all been forgiven," she described how one inmate charged with drug trafficking was able to find hope through the letters.

And the fact that he and inmates have a shared experience gives him authority to tell them there is hope and its name is Jesus. He knows because he lived it, and now he shares it along with other members of Ocala First United Methodist Church who are involved in the non-denominational Kairos prison ministry.

Offering support for the imprisoned means following the command Jesus made in Matthew 25:36-40 when he said: “I was in prison and you came to visit me…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

In the Florida Conference that can take many forms. It can be as formalized as the Kairos program, or just the simple act of writing a letter and sharing that Christ’s love is available to everyone.

Gail Brundage is doing the latter at Seminole United Methodist Church in Pinellas County. She is organizing a prison pen pals program, reaching out to female inmates. The impact has helped change lives, including one woman who was in the Hernando County prison for drug trafficking.

Brundage was given the woman’s name through the prison and followed up with a letter.

“We’ve all been forgiven,” she said. “We’re all under the blood of Christ. I can’t judge her.”

Brundage discovered the woman’s family had broken off contact after her sentence. The loneliness compounded the stress and shame she was feeling, but that began to change as Brundage showed her unconditional love and support.

“She found the Lord in prison,” Brundage said. “It helped turn her life around. She found hope.”

Hope is why Pastor Patina Ripkey, First United Methodist Church of Oviedo, also reached out to a woman in the Tampa area who admitted to murdering her two children in a high-profile case. It wasn’t easy, though. The murders took place a short distance from Ripkey’s home at the time, and as a mother herself, she felt a special anger.

She also felt something else.

“I was reading the book of Jonah one morning, about how He did not want to go back and tell the people to repent,” she said. “He knew that God is good and would have mercy on them, and Jonah didn’t want that. He wanted those people punished.”

That’s when she felt God’s nudge to reach out to the woman who committed the crime.

“I knew I wasn’t being honest with God because I knew as a mother she was the one person I didn’t want God to forgive,” Ripkey said. “But I felt convicted. I asked God what He wanted me to do about this.

“So, I wrote a letter and said that what you did was horrifying, but I believe in the power of Jesus and nothing can separate us from God’s love. I thought I was done.”

She was wrong.

A couple of weeks later, Ripkey received a return letter. It was from the woman who killed her children. She said she broke down in her cell and cried after reading what God could do, even for her.

“I was overwhelmed,” Ripkey said.

Steve Kennedy, of Englewood United Methodist Church, knows how that feels. He joins with a team of up to 30 volunteers who meet with inmates at Moore Haven Correctional Institute in Glades County as part of an intense Kairos program.

“It’s very well defined, with a tremendous amount of support,” he said. “We follow a book that tells us everything to do. It’s about an inch and a half thick, and it works.

Inmate sitting on a mattress in solitary confinement.
Barry Shields of Ocala FUMC works for a non-denominational Kairos ministry. He has heard powerful testimony from inmates and has been blessed to "have a ringside seat" at miracles through the ministry.

“It is not a preachy time at all, though. Volunteers follow the mantra of ‘listen, listen, love, love.’”

The Kairos weekend begins on a Thursday afternoon at Moore Haven and runs into mid-evening. There are all-day sessions from Friday through Sunday, and it concludes with the guests, as the inmates are called, being invited to give testimony.

Prison officials deliberately choose some of the most hardened offenders to attend the session, with the belief that those men are leaders of the prisoners and would be most likely to spread the positive change they just received.

“Many of these men have not experienced that kind of love, ever,” Kennedy said. “They are genuinely touched that a bunch of men would give up that much time to be with them when they could be with their families.

“At our last session, one of the residents told us during his testimony that the men inside walk past each other all day without speaking. Now because of this program, they find they’re sharing intimate details of their lives. They said they never did that on the outside because no one ever showed them love.”

Experiencing that love is what helped Shields turn his life around after being sentenced to up to 3 1/2 years on drug charges. He and other volunteers from Ocala First UMC believe in sharing it with those who need it most at the Marion Correctional Institution.

“Until you’re willing to receive the Holy Spirit and let Him clean out the whole closet, not just select parts, you can’t receive the whole blessing,” he said.

“In my case, I had unsettled anger and resentment issues at my core over being abandoned by my father. I spent time in eight different drug treatment centers, but the older I got, the more I realized the Lord wasn’t going to give me too many more mulligans.”

That realization eventually led him to Kairos, a program he actually had rejected while in prison. He now understands that ministering to those rejected by society is a calling.

“The whole point of the program is about their willingness to accept Christ’s love and grace,” he said. “I know that because I’ve been in their shoes.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone who was the quietest guy in the room during the whole program get up at the end and give a powerful testimony about how his life has been changed. I feel like we’ve been blessed to have a ringside seat at a miracle.”

--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.

Editor’s Note: Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery. Together, with God, we are bigger! #flumcWeAreBigger

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Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery. Together, with God, we are bigger!

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