By Ed Spencer June 2015
Why am I involved in mentoring other men?
I will never forget the days of my teen years when I, too, was a troubled young man. Men of the Church, Youth Leaders mainly, took an interest in me, prayed for me, empathized with me and befriended me. I will never forget those men who influenced me. I felt accountable to those men; I never wanted to let them down. They strengthened my faith because I saw Christ in them. All through my military experience after High School they continued to write to me, they encouraged me and they prayed for me. I was a lonely teen away from home, in a scary, foreign environment.
I was in my young twenties when I took a job as a counselor and single house parent at a school for juvenile delinquents. I was able to exercise and develop my God given empathy for troubled young men. I wanted to be like the friends (mentors) that helped me when I needed it most. I thank them and I credit these men for giving me a ‘heart of empathy’ for other young men struggling through life. You see, I understand how they feel…
Most of my life, I have been involved in the lives of other troubled young men through the Christian Service Brigade (Boys Brigade) and many other youth programs, including Church youth ministries. Through the late 80s and early 90s, I was also involved in the Christian Rock Music movement promoting Local Concerts in our local High Schools and Churches drawing young people to hear the message of Christ. This led to becoming one of the founders of a local all volunteer Christian Music Radio Station which broadcast out of our garage throughout the 1990s. Around the year 2000 the radio station went on to be a full time ministry with a paid staff, and evolved to become “WORD-FM”.
How did I get involved in the Prison Mentoring Ministry?
In 2005, God put a burden for a certain young man on my heart. I saw him on the national news. He was only 18 at the time. He came from a Christian home and a Christian background. He even attended some of the same Christian Rock concert events that I had attended. His name is David.
At a time in his life when he was full of anger, confusion, and disillusion, David committed a heinous crime. I felt God tug on my heart; this young man needed a Christian friend and he needed one now. My empathy for him became overwhelming—my heart cried for this very lonely, scared boy, who was now in a jail cell without a friend. There was no one to remind him that Jesus was still there for him. What happened to David? How does a young man go from the excitement of a Christian Rock concert to a terrible crime in a matter of months?
For days I felt compelled to reach out to David. His crime was not a victimless crime. And, to be clear, I was saddened and I felt empathy for the family who suffered great loss. Still, I knew my calling was to reach out to David, and find out what was in his heart.
So, with a little research, I was able to find David’s “My Space” page before it was taken down by the authorities. I was truly amazed at what he had written in the months before his fall. He had explained that one of his favorite things was “listening to Christian rock music”. Another favorite thing was “Serving my King”. Wow! What happened to this young Believer who cared so much about his relationship with Jesus?
After a few more days, with the drumbeat in my heart getting louder and louder, I felt that I just had to write to David; I had to let him know that God still loved him and cared about him, and that I cared about him as well. I waited about a week to see if I would get a reply, but when I did not…I wrote to David again.
I should explain something here; at this time, (the beginning of his incarceration) David was getting dozens of letters daily. Many of them were hate mail. It was difficult to know who he could trust. But, after the second week, I received a reply from David! It was a reply that I will never forget. His letter to me was several pages long, on legal size yellow pad paper. It was a tear stained letter with the ink running down from the hand written words. His writing was small and difficult to read at first. It was the most remorseful and sincere letter I have ever seen. I cried with him that day.
We continued to develop a friendship over the next ten months until I had the opportunity to visit him in a special State Correction Institution for young violent offenders. David was living there with a ‘life without parole’ sentence over him. The first time I visited there, the place looked a lot like your average high school…except that it had a 15’ double chain link fence with razor wire across the top!
I had been in Juvenile Jails before, but never any place so serious looking inside. It was a maximum security facility that required a visitor to be scanned by a metal detector, submit to a drug scan by computer, and then receive a black light hand stamp in order to get to the visiting room. It was a bit scary the first time. Hearing the door buzz in front of you then clank behind you each time you went through another hall or room was even more sobering. The first visit, getting to know David face to face, and seeing the incredibly positive attitude he had, was very uplifting and encouraging.
How could I top that? I left that visit on a high note; wondering if I left as much encouragement with him as I received! It was again sad and sobering hearing the doors buzz before me and clank behind me as I walked out.
Through each of my visits I encouraged David all that I could. However, for me, it was more of a learning experience, teaching me a new level of encouraging. Knowing David was a college-level class for me in learning how to encourage other young men in trouble. The first thing I learned is that every bit of encouragement that you extend to these guys is returned. David not only encouraged me, but he prayed for me, and he was always interested in how life was going for me on the outside.
At first I was hesitant to tell him too much about life on the outside because I didn’t want to make him feel bad. No, he wanted me to tell all that I could, holding nothing back. I visited David every couple of months and wrote to him a minimum of once a week. The prison was 4 hours away, which prohibited me from visiting him more often. He was able to call me once in a while as well. I was always excited and anxious to receive his mail and his phone calls and I looked forward to our visits.
David was heavily involved in the prison’s Chapel activities, and he also loved the sports he was able to participate in. He was always excited to tell me about his winning volleyball team and his hockey games. Also, I was able to supply the prison chaplain with Christian Rock Music Albums that the inmates could borrow and enjoy. For a while, as his prison job, David was able to participate as a counselor’s aid. He went into group counseling sessions with the counselor to help and encourage other teens on how to cope with prison life and tough sentences.
The beginning of my Prison Mentoring Ministry.
Young men in prison tend to feel insignificant and worthless. The motivation to live can easily be lost. A mentor’s encouragement can help them remember that they are valuable to Christ, and that they have importance to other people in this world. That’s why during his second year, David gave me the names of other young men who needed encouragement. He genuinely cared about the others he was spending his days with. I took those names and shared them with other men in our Church men’s group. I asked them to mail Christmas cards to these guys with a personal message of encouragement. Several of the young inmates wrote back and a few men developed a relationship of encouragement with them. This year will be the eighth year of the Christmas card program, and, this past year, over 300 cards were sent out by 30 men to 32 inmates. For many of the inmates, these are the only Christmas cards that they will receive. Almost all of the inmates tape these cards to their cell walls and they see them every day, providing encouragement many times over.
Often times the Christmas card Program is an ice breaker for a new mentoring relationship. It is not mandatory that the men write back, and only a few do… but if God puts it on your heart to participate, all of these guys can use some encouragement from a fellow Christian. Sending a fellow Christian a card at Christmas may seem like a simple act of Christian love, but it can actually be an important outreach to the “forgotten Christians behind bars”.
All of the young guys from that first youth correctional facility have moved on to various adult prisons. We have kept up with them and continued contact and visits to encourage them. David is in an adult facility with an awesome Chaplain and chapel Program. They have many opportunities to serve Christ. There is a missions committee there where the inmates give and support several outside ministries and missionaries.
Each Christmas, they are so excited to purchase gifts and pack bags of gifts for children in the local homeless shelter. These prisoners only make from 21 to 42 cents per hour and they give nearly all they have to these projects. This is certainly a huge lesson and example in generosity for us. In their small isolated Christian community they encourage, protect, and support each other. Their anonymous voice and giving is heard around the world.
It’s been nearly 10 years now, and I have witnessed the work of the Holy Spirit as spiritual growth is achieved by prisoners and mentors alike through these relationships. There are some amazing lessons we can learn from the Christians behind bars that have positive attitudes, despite what they are facing. Often they are incredibly grateful for what they have, even though they live with very few possessions. That surely teaches us to be grateful for all that we have. And, make no mistake about this, their life can be filled with things that are brutally unfair–from the judicial system down through the Department of Corrections–yet they can keep a positive attitude of patience and forgiveness, and they are slow to anger… As mentors, there is so much that we learn from their everyday life!
Mentoring Reaches the Heart
Prison mentoring or prison friendship is a ministry that works on and through the heart. When a man is in a place where he can trust no one, a Godly mentor or a Godly friend can enter through the heart. Then, he can see who God is through you! A level of trust is developed and a question within their heart comes up. Why does this friend care about me? Whose is He? What drives him to care? What motivates this guy to spend this time with me? Eventually an attitude of trust is developed and he is able to see Christ in you. Next is a level of trust where he will not want to disappoint you or let you down. He will not want to let God down. Then it becomes a life changing relationship. Rehabilitation of the heart is true rehabilitation.
Are you thinking about sharing your faith and friendship with another Christian, perhaps one that is behind bars and truly needs a friend? The Holy Spirit works through people like you and me. Our small acts of kindness, and our friendships with these forgotten children of God, bring an opportunity for great growth in our relationship with Jesus. I know this: I have been more blessed by my prisoner friendships than you can imagine—by helping ‘The Least of These”, we truly end up helping ourselves!
You can also read more about prison mentoring relationships, on this site. Perhaps you might take a look at the stories of Lex and Antonio…they are a “great read”… and see if their stories, or any of the others, find a place in your heart…If you choose to become a mentor or friend of a Christian behind bars, , I know that you, too, will be blessed, and that you will enjoy the fullness of His light in your life!
By Ed Spencer